Putin Turns Up His Special War Against Europe

Over the last year, since the Russian theft of Crimea, I’ve unambiguously warned that Vladimir Putin means what he says and he will not shy away from confrontation with the West, even at the risk of major war. Opportunities to deter this resurgent Russia, which I counseled many months ago, were punted on by the U.S. and NATO, so we now face a serious risk of war with Putin over his mounting hegemony in Eastern Europe. Ukraine is just the beginning.

As I’ve long made clear, Russia does not play by Western rules, and Putin and his Kremlin, being Chekists to their core, place great value on what I term Special War, meaning a shadowy amalgam of espionage, propaganda, and terrorism that Western states are poorly positioned to counter. At the end of the last year I predicted that the Kremlin’s Special War against the West was sure to rise, and so it has in the first quarter of this new year.

Last week I explained how Russian espionage against the Czech Republic — no congenital hater of the Russians like, say, Poland or the Baltics — had become so serious that Prague had expelled three Russian spies in recent months, amid warnings from Czech counterintelligence that at least a quarter of the outsized number of Russian diplomats in the country were actually spies posing as diplomats.

Over the last year I’ve explained in detail how Russian intelligence abroad, encompassing the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and the military’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), have increased the scope and intensity of their operations against many NATO countries, including France, Germany, Hungary, and Poland. Most of these operations are undertaken by SVR or GRU officers serving under what the Russians term Legal cover, meaning they are pretending to be diplomats, trade representatives, and whatnot.

But in recent years there has also been an uptick in operations by spies whom the Russians term Illegals, meaning intelligence officers who serve abroad without any official protection, often posing as third-country nationals. The massive 2010 round up of a whole network of SVR Illegals in the United States proved a serious blow to the Kremlin, and their espionage still exhibits weaknesses, as evidenced by the recent arrest of an SVR Illegal operating in New York, a second-rater who did not belong to the elite of Russian spies.

Such Kremlin activities extend beyond NATO as well, and now it’s Sweden’s turn. A neutral that’s prone to downplaying threats on political grounds, and is always careful not to needlessly aggravate the Russian bear looming across the Baltic Sea, Stockholm has nevertheless had enough of clandestine Russian shenanigans in their country. This week they have gone public with the extent of the Kremlin’s Special War being waged against Sweden.

According to the Swedish Security Service (Säpo), at least one-third of the Russian diplomats in the country are actually spies. Recent months have seen repeated incidents of Russian intelligence provocations — submarines off the coast, SVR and GRU ramping up clandestine in-country operations — and Stockholm is worried, particularly because Kremlin efforts to recruit spies inside Swedish military and political circles are increasingly obvious.

Gone are the bumbling, vodka-swilling Russian spies of the 1990’s, when the Soviet collapse curtailed much espionage abroad. Since 2006, SVR and GRU operations against the West have risen steadily, to the point that current activities are as intense in number and audacity as they were at the height of the Cold War. Sweden is no exception, and Säpo’s chief analyst noted that Russian spies today are “highly educated and often younger than during the Soviet era. They are driven, goal-oriented and socially competent.” Not to mention that this is only talking about Russian Legals, not Illegals, who can be assumed to add to the ranks of Kremlin spies in Sweden, perhaps considerably.

As always, these spies are recruiting sources, disseminating disinformation, and fomenting dissent in the host country, per longstanding Russian espionage practice. This has become so serious that Stockholm now considers Russia to be the top threat to Swedish national security. The Säpo analyst bluntly explained, “There are hundreds of Russian intelligence officers around Europe and the West. They violate our territory every day … We see Russian intelligence operations in Sweden—we can’t interpret this in any other way—as preparation for military operations against Sweden.”

There’s the rub. Every week of late, Putin turns up the heat on NATO and the West: diplomatic threats, aggressive maneuvers with combat aircraft, the movement of late–model missiles to Kaliningrad, putting Stockholm, Warsaw, and Berlin within easy range of Russian tactical nuclear weapons. Now, Putin either wants open war against the West — not just the clandestine games of Special War — or we wants us to think he does: in either case, this is a terrifying situation.

Many believe that Putin thinks he can use the threat of nuclear blackmail to gain a free hand for Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, and they may be right. Certainly there is little in NATO reactions to Russian aggression to date that suggests a backbone is forming in Berlin, Paris, or Washington, DC. Whether or not the Kremlin wants major war is known only to Putin and the tiny circle of advisors, all hard-edged Chekists like himself, whom the Russian leader listens to.

For now, Special War will continue to achieve Kremlin aims, possibly without major war, while laying the intelligence groundwork for that bigger conflict, should that happen. Today’s news brings word that Polish counterintelligence has detected an air force officer spying for Moscow. He is reported to have passed classified information about Poland’s wing of F-16 fighters, the backbone of Polish defense against the Russians, in what may constitute a serious blow to NATO readiness on the Alliance’s exposed eastern frontier.

Another day, another Russian spy in the West detected. You can expect more of this. If we’re lucky, our conflict with Putin, which is being orchestrated by the Kremlin, will remain confined to SpyWar. Yet how robustly the West confronts Russian Special War — which is ultimately a question of politics, not counterespionage — is a good benchmark for how effectively we can deter a major, and possibly nuclear, war. Without political will, all the West’s acumen in military and intelligence affairs will matter little compared to the robust will shown by Vladimir Putin, who is playing for keeps, and intends to win.

Why the West is Losing

That the West is quaking down to its foundations at present seems broadly understood by many Westerners, based on numerous opinion polls. The population of the West, despite its vast wealth, is mired in self-doubt and worries about its future. Recent events in Ukraine and the Middle East are part of this concern. Resurgent Russia, led by the boastfully confident Vladimir Putin, is openly mocking ceasefires in Ukraine, which he agreed to with major NATO members, while the ink remains less than fully dry. Meanwhile, the Islamic State continues its murderous march across Iraq and Syria, undeterred by intermittent U.S.-led airstrikes, butchering and decapitating for the cameras now on the Mediterranean shore. Rome is preparing for war on Libya, a troubled state pushed past the point of coherence by botched NATO intervention in 2011, so grave does the threat appear to Italian eyes.

In contrast, President Obama sees little threat at all, or at least nothing that can be termed “Islamic.” Recent comments from the White House do not inspire confidence that Obama and his national security staff have taken the full measure of the threat emanating from the advancing Islamic State, ISIS for short. The mainstream media has come around to an understanding that ISIS, as its name implies, is grounded in a vehement ideology wrapped up in a literalist and extreme version of Sunni Islam. They are unquestionably violent extremists, as the White House has noted, but of a particular kind which is identifiably Islamic. That the Islamic State has nothing to do with “real” Islam is a epiphany that only overeducated Westerners can witness. This is more evidence that, to paraphrase Orwell, some ideas are so silly that you have to be an intellectual to believe them.

ISIS is so absurdly, sick-cartoonishly violent that they surpass the ability of post-modern Westerners, what I have referred to as the WEIRD contingent, to comprehend what’s going on. Having never been taught about the West’s long, often unpleasant history with Islam, except to emphasize Western misdeeds, grasping that ISIS is tapping into a virulent and violent strain of Islam that has deep historical roots is impossible. WEIRDos, led by Obama, know all about the Crusades, or at least think they do, but have never pondered Tours 732, Kosovo 1389, Constantinople 1453, much less Vienna 1527 and 1683. Does even one American in a thousand know how the “shores of Tripoli” wound up in the Marines’ Hymn?

Moreover, the testosterone-laden appeal of the bloody and hateful ISIS message to a disturbing number of young men (and women), including thousands of Westerners accustomed to comfort, is incomprehensible to WEIRDos. White House messaging that employment opportunities will fix this problem is not only untrue, it’s the opposite of the truth. Teenaged fanatics, many of them far from pious in their faith, are seeking to join ISIS precisely to reject the softness and decadence of the Western post-modern way of life, which they despise and quite literally wish to kill. To date, this warrior’s call to adventure appeals mainly to losers, criminals, and the psychologically unbalanced, but it may not remain confined to such déclassé elements.

Yet ISIS represents a second-tier threat to the West at present. If Obama should find the backbone to issue orders, U.S. airpower and special operations forces can decapitate the Islamic State in its heartland in a few months. While ISIS-inspired jihadists will create mayhem in Europe, and eventually America too, these will mostly be low-level attacks of the sort recently witnessed in Paris and Copenhagen: evil but limited. In the West to date, ISIS-inspired jihadists, many of them merely wannabes, are incapable of pulling off “big weddings” that will kill hundreds of innocents. Periodic incidents of homegrown terrorism may become simply “how we live now” in the West, something that will change lives and lifestyles but will not overturn civilization. There is no security solution to this challenge and a political fix seems impossible, since real issues cannot be discussed honestly, so increasing violent extremism in our midst looks like the West’s new normal.

Russia, however, is a different matter. The world’s biggest country, possessing thousands of nuclear weapons, and led by a man seething with hatred and resentment against the West, represents a potentially existential threat to the Western way of life — and countless lives. While Vladimir Putin does not seek a nuclear war, he is willing to gamble with hard power, with all its attendant risks, in a fashion no Western leader has countenanced in decades. In recent months, Putin’s embrace of duplicitous diplomacy backed by Special War and periodic outbursts of conventional combat, most recently at Debaltseve, another stinging — because needless — defeat for Ukraine, have delivered victory after victory for the Kremlin.

Strategically speaking, none of this should be happening. Notwithstanding that Ukraine’s deeply flawed leadership, which has refrained from real mobilization much less reality-based war planning, has been a highly cooperative adversary for the Kremlin, Putin has been winning round after round of poker with Kyiv and NATO despite holding mediocre cards. Putin’s Russia, hobbled by sanctions and the collapse in oil prices, is no Soviet Union: in economic terms, it’s dwarfed by the European Union, while militarily, anything resembling a European war would be a disaster for Russia. Americans are advised to think of Putin’s Russia (143 million citizens with a per capita GDP of USD 14K) as basically Mexico (114 million citizens with a per capita GDP of USD 11K) with thousands of nukes and fiercely anti-Western leadership.

Yet Putin’s streak of wins cannot be construed as anything but impressive, particularly considering how weak his cards really are. With his recent Minsk escapade, where he got terrified German and French leaders to sign off on a “ceasefire” in eastern Ukraine which Russian-backed fighters never honored at all, instead opting to push harder — with weapons, ammunition, intelligence, and skilled commanders coming from Russia, mind you — Putin demonstrated his contempt for the West, as well as how he plans to establish Russian hegemony over Eastern Europe, breaking NATO in the process, preferably without major war.

How important Putin’s grand strategic goal is to the Kremlin should not be underestimated. He aims to achieve what the mighty Soviet Union never could, winning Moscow’s control over Eastern Europe — and thereby pushing America out of Europe, at least de facto — without major war and extended occupation. Whether he can actually pull this off remains to be seen, but it’s not difficult to see why, surveying the last twelve months, Putin is brimming with self-confidence, while viewing the West with sneering contempt.

The risk to world peace at present, since Putin’s continuing to gamble with high stakes is now a given, is that Russia will eventually cross a NATO “redline.” It’s impossible to know if the Atlantic Alliance would really go to war over an aggressive Kremlin provocation against a Baltic republic, which is clearly an attractive option for Moscow now. If the West has a redline in Eastern Europe, where exactly it is seems to be unknown to Western leaders, except in a highly formal (and therefore meaningless) sense. Given Obama’s shaky track record with redlines, we should expect the Russians to keep pushing, and in so doing, they may go too far, causing the Third World War.

Or perhaps not. Given the dismal conduct of Western diplomacy over Ukraine, with bouts of weakness amidst bursts of sheer panic, it’s worth pondering if there is anything Europeans in 2015 will fight for, even their own homelands. Over the last generation, Europeans have become accustomed to their comfortable, post-modern lifestyle, with ample state support, where war is impossible, so defense budgets can be cut down to nearly nothing. This is indeed a lovely life — which is why I spend as many months of the year in my rustico, high in the Alps, as possible — yet it cannot last much longer without major changes. Demographics alone will undermine the post-modern European project, as too few children are being born to sustain such generous welfare states and their attendant dolce vita.

Even before demographic demise, the Russians are coming. The Kremlin, which is winning every diplomatic fight and battle in Ukraine, sees no reason to stop now. As Western sanctions inflict pain, doubling-down by Moscow seems a rational choice, as was evident months ago. Putin represents a drastically different vision of Europe’s future than what passes for received wisdom among Europe’s elites. Mired in old-think, including a downright nineteenth century take on force, war, and diplomacy, Putin represents an atavism, a crude, outmoded version of ourselves — the angry white male of liberal nightmares — that Western progressives believed had been killed off by the gender and social revolutions of the 1960’s.

Putin, a staunch traditionalist in matters of belief and social order, oozes contempt for the post-modern West, viewing it as feeble, feminine, and dying. He rejects the European post-Cold War consensus in toto, and seeks to remake the continent along Russian lines. He has promised Russians glory and order, not comfort and decadence. While he cannot succeed in the long run, for reasons I’ve already elaborated, he can create enormous damage along the way, as well as creating conditions which will mandate a return to traditional values in any countries that wish to survive in a Russian-dominated Europe.

Analogies to Adolf Hitler are hazardous, but some appear obvious in the case of Vladimir Putin. In the first place, Hitler was shaped profoundly by the collapse of Imperial Germany in 1918, just as Putin was by the demise of the USSR in 1991. Both men viewed the state they served ambivalently — Hitler wasn’t much of a monarchist and Putin wasn’t a diehard Marxist either — but defeat was a life-changing ordeal that created new political and social realities which, in time, Hitler and Putin exploited masterfully.

From 1918, Hitler took the lesson that Germany needed moral rearmament more than anything else since, in Nazi telling, collapse at the end of the Great War was caused by moral shortcomings more than military defeats. Thus Hitler’s famous line that, though he was a socialist, he had no need to nationalize German factories because “I shall nationalize the people.” Similarly, Putin considers that the sudden implosion of the USSR was not due to economic or military weakness, rather to loss of faith in the Soviet system. Such a withering away of national morale, and therefore of the state itself, is something Putin will not have happen on his watch. Hence the emphasis on nationalism, unity, propaganda, and religious imagery to bind citizens to the state — which makes a better motivator of average Russians than Marxism-Leninism ever was — as in venerable Muscovite tradition.

Also like Hitler did in the mid-1930’s, Putin in a few months has managed to overturn European diplomacy, through clever and cautious use of force, remaking it in his own, tough image (though Berlin, Paris, and Washington, DC, haven’t quite realized this yet). By re-writing the rule-book of international relations, recasting it in terms of force and will, Hitler and Putin alike created a new diplomatic reality, despite their own weakness, that bears little resemblance to the happy never-never-land of conferences, summits, heated debates over beef subsidies, and cocktail parties that polite Europeans thought constituted statecraft. That naive vision has been steamrolled by the Kremlin over the past year, as surely as Ukrainian volunteers have been crushed under Russian tank treads.

At a certain level, what Putin represents to Western post-moderns is so terrifying that they simply deny reality, individually and collectively. Of course, continuing to deny what Putin is, and what his Russia wants, and is willing to kill and die for, will only encourage more Kremlin aggression and game-playing with nuclear weapons, so a strong dose of reality would be welcome in NATO capitals, and soon, if we wish to deter Putin while he still can be deterred.

However, I am decreasingly optimistic that Western leaders will rise to the occasion in time. I have been sharply critical of Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s candy entrepreneur turned war president, for his diffident leadership as Putin devours his country, one bite at a time. In good post-modern European fashion, Poroshenko has emphasized hashtags, peace vigils, and tough talk (not action), rather than national mobilization and coherent strategy-making, which is why Ukraine is losing badly. Yet NATO deserves sharper criticism still, since their military and economic power dwarfs Ukraine’s, while Western leaders seem every bit as mired in fantasy thinking and hope-as-strategy when it comes to Putin as anybody in Kyiv.

The essential incomprehensibility of Putin’s Russia, which after 1991 was supposed to have become “like us” in matters economic, political, social and sexual, albeit at a languid Russian pace, looms large in the minds of Westerners today, who utter nervous laughter about Putin and his shirtless photo-ops with dangerous animals, rather than pondering what this says about Russia. Some are slowly noticing that twenty-first century Russia has embraced values which are not merely unlike ours, they are the actually the opposite of them.

The WEIRD take on Putin has been perfectly captured by a piece in The New York Times Magazine, authored by just the self-absorbed, nebbishy sort who both writes and reads the Grey Lady. The author, a Russian Jew who came to America as a child, covers his subject with roughly the same dispassion as a Palestinian would write about Israelis. To learn what makes Putin’s Russia tick, the author submitted himself to a week of non-stop Russian TV, while holed up in a swanky Manhattan hotel, fed with room service finery to counteract all the Kremlin agitprop.

Lots Seinfeld-y inside jokes about calling therapists ensue, amidst constant jibes about how latently homosexual Putin and his testosterone-driven Russia really are. What comes through clearly, however, is that popular culture under Putin has created a mindset that is nationalist and firmly anti-Western in virtually every way; at times, it drips with hatred towards the West, seeing nefarious plots against Russia everywhere. That Russians are a bunch of uncouth idiots is made obvious. But the crux of the matter, as revealed in the piece’s title, “Out of My Mouth Comes Unimpeachable Manly Truth,” is that Russia has simply opted out of the post-modern Western way of life, emphasizing outmoded values such as masculinity, faith, plus traditional sex and gender roles, in a thoroughly atavistic manner.

Anybody who has met actual Russians knows how little they, even the cultured ones, have been touched by post-modern Western mores on race, gender, and sexuality. They remain comfortable with the tough, ugly, dog-eat-dog world we have. I have tried on multiple occasions to explain “trigger warnings” to educated Russians, but they never believe me and burst out laughing. What causes this — Communism? Byzantinism? Tsarism? something in Russian water and/or DNA? — is debatable but that Russians simply live in a different mental universe than twenty-first century Westerners do is not.

Besides, Russia’s return to atavism is more disturbing to Westerners than any ISIS madness. At a deep, if unstated level, Muslims acting like barbarians has been part of our script for so long that it fails to stir our fears except when it comes close, as in Paris recently. The only thing that’s shocking is how the madmen are capturing it all on YouTube now. But Russians are Europeans of a sort, they look rather like us, but they certainly don’t think and act like us, and this is disconcerting to Europeans, and many Americans, at a level that cannot be easily expressed. The white caveman of progressive nightmares is back, and his name is Vladimir Putin.

A big part of why the West cannot seem to grapple meaningfully with the Russian threat, despite the fact that in any strategic sense NATO is holding most of the cards in this high-stakes game, is because he challenges not just what we have, but who we are. Putin and Putinism represent a direct challenge to the post-modern way of life that has become normative, especially among educated Westerners since the 1960’s. A worldview that prefers soft, feminine values to tougher masculine ones, that finds patriotism risible, that believes there is nothing worth dying for, has little to say when the monsters we firmly believed were safely behind the fortress walls, lurking hungrily, turn out to be on our doorstep, and the front door is unlocked.

Europeans who wish to resist Putinism will need to become a bit like the Russians, reemphasizing the utility of force in international affairs, and that reassessment brings social and gender implications that post-moderns will find uncomfortable. It should not be excluded that some Europeans actively prefer Moscow’s vision of the future, even if they don’t like Russians, to what Brussels can offer now. Greece may only be the beginning of a disturbing trend. Small, if ardent, numbers of Europeans will be enticed by the mad jihad offered by ISIS, but far larger numbers of disaffected Westerners may find Putin’s worldview enticing, particularly as he moves from victory to victory.

The moral outweighs the physical in war, as sages have counseled for millennia, and today Putin is drinking the elixir of easy triumphs over his feeble foes. This aura is intoxicating to many even outside Russia. If the West wishes to deter Putin before he unleashes continental war, by accident or by design, it needs to examine what it has become and how it can realistically defend its way of life. Only then will it be sensible to discuss strategies to deter and, if necessary, defeat this resurgent Russia.

Why Putin Will Lose

This is turning out to be a bad week for Europeans hoping to resist the advance of Putinism. Ukraine continues to dither, rather than fight Russian invasion seriously. While Kyiv at last termed Moscow’s violence against their country “aggression,” they demurred from calling it a war, which it is, seemingly not realizing that if Ukraine won’t call this a war, NATO and the rest of Europe never will. The Poroshenko administration continues to pass on getting serious about defending their country, as I have roundly criticized.

News from Athens is also bad. The newly-elected hard-left SYRIZA party is not just anti-austerity, it’s openly pro-Putin. New Prime Minister Alexis Tspiras makes no effort to hide his admiration for this Kremlin, and the first foreign dignitary he entertained as PM was Russia’s ambassador to Greece. Greece’s new defense minister visited Moscow before the election, while the new foreign minister is pals with Aleksander Dugin, the Kremlin-approved neo-fascist ideologist (while Dugin, the son of a GRU general, is a marginal figure in Moscow, he is employed by the regime as fly-paper for foreign Putin groupies). Although SYRIZA is a very left-wing party, it fits comfortably into the mostly far-right Putinist coalition in Europe. As Dugin explained in 2013, “In Greece, our partners could eventually be Leftists from SYRIZA, which refuses Atlanticism, liberalism and the domination of the forces of global finance. As far as I know, SYRIZA is anti-capitalist and it is critical of the global oligarchy that has victimized Greece and Cyprus.”

Everybody expected that SYRIZA, with its anti-austerity platform, would pose immediate problems for the EU, but it’s now clear that the new government in Athens will bring problems for NATO as well. SYRIZA opposition to EU sanctions on Russia is stated openly, and it seems possible that Greece will now move into an openly pro-Moscow orientation in foreign and defense policy, which would pose serious complications for NATO. The emerging dividing line in European politics is no longer Left versus Right, but Pro- or Anti-Putin.

Most Western leaders remain blind, at this point willfully, to what Putin represents and what he wants. Moscow makes no effort to hide its worldview, a toxic blend of Chekism, militant Orthodoxy, xenophobia, and anti-Western resentments, but the Davos elite, being the consummate WEIRDos, cannot see the obvious. As long as NATO and EU leaders refuse to notice what is before their eyes, the West will continue to lose to a Russia that it dwarfs in political, military, and economic terms. In war, will counts more than numbers, as Putin is proving yet again.

It’s increasingly obvious that Moscow’s aim is the recreation of something like the Tsarist Empire of pre-Great War days. An important bellwether here is the Russian Institute for Strategic Research (RISI), another “independent” Moscow think-tank that actually isn’t independent. RISI’s head is Leonid Reshetnikov, another “former” Chekist, in fact a career KGB officer who retired as a two-star general and the head of foreign intelligence analysis. Like many, he has transformed into a militant religious believer with Big Ideas and enthusiastic backer of Putin’s Orthodox Jihad. Reshetnikov, who pushed for the invasion of Ukraine, now wants to erase Belarus also, and thereby recreate Tsarist Russia. It’s comforting to dismiss this as lunatic nostalgia, but Reshetnikov is no marginal figure, rather a connected member of the Chekist elite with close ties to the Kremlin.

Recreating Tsarist Russia within the frontiers of 1914 would mesh nicely with the fate of Ukraine I recently sketched as the likely outcome if Kyiv does not get serious about the war, soon. That this vision includes the re-annexation of the Baltic States, which would mean war with NATO, should be obvious to all. The West must look squarely at the fact that Putin may no longer fear such a confrontation. There is little time to waste.

In the midst of all this dire warning, I want to inject a dose of optimism. Putin’s neo-imperial project is doomed to fail. Its inherent contradictions are great, to add a fleeting Marxist note. It is an intensely Russian project and the very things that make Putinism intoxicating to Russians — its nationalist politics and religion, its paeans to Muscovy’s heroes and greatness past — render it toxic to foreigners. For all its ambitions beyond the borders of the Russian Federation, Putinism has nothing to offer non-Russians except vassalage.

It’s impossible to miss that European fans of Putin increase in number the farther you travel from Russia’s borders. Closer to Russia, the sort of far-right activists who agree with a lot of Moscow’s critique of the West’s WEIRD problem are intensely anti-Putin, out of fear; they know the Kremlin has no place for them in their plans for a New Europe, free of Atlanticism and the United States.

It’s easy to fantasize about Putin “saving” Europe from itself when you’re in Germany or Greece, or better yet France. Such illusions are rare in Poland, Romania, the Baltic States, much less Ukraine, where the hungry Russian bear looms close-by. One wonders what Marine Le Pen would think of her crush in the Kremlin if France were located a thousand kilometers eastward of where it is.

Ukrainians have no illusions, they know the Russians well. They are aware that most Russians, including Putin, don’t view theirs as a “real” country, despite the fact that it has forty-five million citizens and is the second biggest country in Europe. Putin has openly stated he does not think Ukraine is a country and he refers to them as “Little Russians,” an offensive Tsarist throwback. Ukrainians know that their language, the second-biggest in Imperial Russia, was banned entirely by the Tsar in 1876, while the Soviets, despite being more understanding about Ukrainian language and culture, brought genocide. After such recent historical experiences, why any Ukrainian would welcome Moscow’s rule is a good question.

The volunteers who are bearing so much of the defense of Ukraine’s East include many right-wingers whose views on the WEIRD West are indistinguishable from the Kremlin’s, but they know that Putin does not want allies, he seeks vassals. They are acquainted with what control by Moscow means. Ukraine’s Orthodox Church, which is powerful politically — Ukrainians tend to be more personally devout than Russians, who like to wax about Orthodox swords but don’t actually go to church much — has explained that it rejects Western post-modern values but emphatically does not reject Europe or democracy.

There is nothing new about any of this. In the decades before the Great War, Russian Slavophiles, who pushed an earlier version of militant mystical nationalism fused with Orthodoxy, fantasized about Russia taking over all their “little brothers” in Eastern Europe. They meddled internationally, helping cause World War I, and they were genuinely shocked to discover that Slavs living under the Habsburgs did not greet them as liberators. Ukrainians in Habsburg lands occupied by the Russian army in 1914-15 were immediately treated to what fellow Ukrainians living under the Tsar already experienced. They did not like it, and the Russians arrested thousands of Ukrainians who objected — clerics, teachers, politicians — packing them off to Siberia for the duration.

Such blindness is hardly a uniquely Russian problem. Nationalism is not for export, and is bound to collide with other people’s nationalisms. Comparisons to Hitler are always to be used sparingly but some apply here. Fascism never became an international movement because of the inherent contradictions of the competing nationalisms among Hitler’s wartime allies. For instance, Horthy’s Hungary and Antonescu’s Romania were happy to fight Bolshevism but they really hated and feared each other more.

Neither did the Germans deal well with political figures seeking to be partners, not vassals, of Nazi Germany. Narrowly focused on themselves and their nationalism, the Germans failed to develop any sort of pan-European coalition against the West and Bolshevism, even though there were millions of right-wing Europeans who would have joined them. It never seems to have occurred to Berlin that the more than thirty divisions of the Polish army would have been very helpful in the Wehrmacht‘s (ultimately failed) drive on Moscow in 1941, not to mention that there were many Poles who were as eager to crush the Soviets as anyone in Germany. Poles were inferior Slavs, Untermenschen, and had to be crushed, per Nazi dogma, and that was that — notwithstanding the fact that Germany never fully subdued the Poles, who resisted Nazi occupation with unmatched fervor.

Close to the end of the World War II, as Nazi dreams of empire were collapsing in flames, a noted French collaborationist explained how the Germans did it all wrong. Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, a fascist who became disillusioned with the Germans’ imperial project, shortly before taking his own life, thereby missing a date with an Allied hangman, castigated the “imbecilic” Hitler and Germany’s “extreme political incompetence”:

These military failings followed from Hitler’s total lack of imagination outside of Germany. He was [essentially] a German politician; good for Germany, but only there.

Lacking political culture, education, and a larger tradition, having never traveled, being a xenophobe like many popular demagogues, he did not possess an understanding of what was necessary to make his strategy and diplomacy work outside Germany. All his dreams, all his talents, were devoted to winning the war of 1914, as if conditions [in 1940] were still those of 1914.

Much the same could be said of Putin, a Chekist functionary, not a deep thinker, a man of limited experience of life outside Russia and the KGB cocoon. His brand of Tsarist-era nostalgia, fueled by nationalism and Orthodoxy, has nothing to offer non-Russians, and is not even wanted by some of Russia’s many minorities. Putin, like Hitler, lives in a mental time-warp that was outmoded already in 1914 — see his strangely 19th century views on diplomacy — and would be laughably obsolete now, were it not so dangerous. Moscow’s imperial experiments past all failed, thanks to the limited appeal of the Kremlin’s political program to millions of non-Russians, and this one will too, eventually.

But the ultimate defeat of Putinism, while pre-ordained, may not be quick. Ukraine may indeed fall under Russian vassalage again, and Europe shows no signs of waking up to the nature of this threat, much less what must be done to counter it. No sanctions will stop Putin, who cares little about economics, now. The Davos crowd, long on money and comfort, will likely keep its heads firmly in the sand until Russian tanks are audible, naively thinking Putin can be bought off.

To make the fall of Putinism happen sooner, not later, before Russian imperial fantasies cause a massive war that could kill millions, the West must address this threat seriously, now. Helping Ukraine resist Russian invasion is important, as is finally getting serious about deterrence in Eastern Europe. Just as important is resisting the Kremlin’s Special War against NATO and the EU, while addressing the legitimate concerns of Europeans about hot-button issues like immigration and national identity before they embrace Putin-approved “solutions.”

Vladimir Putin has already torn Europe’s post-Cold War consensus asunder, shattering the happy views of the Davos crowd (though they seem not to realize it), bringing war to the continent again. What this Kremlin wants is perfectly clear. The West’s not noticing Russia’s agenda is a choice, one with increasingly fateful consequences. Putin’s dream of Russian Empire over Eastern Europe will fail, as all preceding efforts of this kind did. NATO and the EU, with American help, have the power to determine how long it takes for Moscow’s fantasies to turn to dust, and how many countries and lives are destroyed before that happens. Let us hope they use it, soon.

The West, Islam, and the Last Stand of the WEIRD

Yet again, Pope Francis has stirred up the Western commentariat by addressing social issues, this time contraception and having babies. Every time this pope talks about matters sexual there are gasps from enlightened Western post-moderns, who seem shocked that Francis is actually a Catholic. They are so accustomed to the laid-back, non-judgmental “cafeteria Catholicism” around them that a Catholic cleric, much less the Pope of Rome, publicly endorsing what the church actually teaches on such issues, however gently, leads to dropped jaws.

After all, Francis seems so nice and progressive, with his outreach to the poor and welcoming things stated about gays and whatnot — these having been the source of consternation among some Catholic traditionalists — and then he turns out to be another old white guy with a lot of “sexual issues.” I am not a Catholic, but it never ceases to amaze me how educated Western post-moderns cannot seem to fathom that no pope is going to ditch centuries of social teaching just to get a nice write-up in Salon or Vox. Francis is a compassionate man, but as the head of the Catholic Church he advocates positions on matters sexual that seem profoundly outdated and literally unthinkable to many in the West today.

Unthinkability is the issue here. The WEIRD demographic, as I’ve explained before, standing for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, is wholly dominant among our media elites that play a huge role in forming opinions and judging the acceptability of the same. Over the last half-century the WEIRD vanguard has taken over the academy, the media, and the entertainment world; one of its better-known members is in the White House right now. Obama’s castigation in 2008 of “bitter” Americans who cling to guns and religion was a perfect one-sentence explanation of how WEIRDos view less educated and enlightened fellow citizens, which is no doubt why his opponents will cite it forever.

There is no tyranny as offensive as a cultural tyranny, of course, and just as affluent, educated post-moderns view their lessers with undisguised contempt, the guns-and-bibles brigade returns that contempt with interest. This goes some way to explaining why American politics has become so bitter in recent years: both sides simply hate each other and bother less and less to mask it.

The WEIRD contingent has had an impressive string of victories since the 1960’s, especially in America. Their record of wins, fast, may have no precedent in history, since culture tends to shift slowly, sometimes glacially. The culture war has been won, and the victory for the WEIRD side is essentially total. In the last fifty years, racial relations have been so dramatically transformed by government and culture, hand in hand, that racism, once casual among many whites, is totally unacceptable in anything resembling polite society. It speaks volumes that Jeffrey Dahmer, who murdered, dismembered and ate seventeen young men, many of them black and Hispanic, was at pains to make clear that, though he was a cannibalistic serial killer, he wasn’t racist: that fact he deemed important.

Even more transformational have been shifts in gender relations since the 1960’s, with American young women today being better educated than their male counterparts, with access to opportunities personal, professional, and sexual that their grandmothers could only have dreamed of. Some feminists now ask what good men are actually for, not in jest. Young men have noticed this seismic shift and numbers of them are dropping out of the race — professional and sexual — in a way their dads and granddads could not possibly comprehend. In Japan, this has become an official problem, and has a good deal to do with Japan’s staggering demographic crisis. As with race, feminism has triumphed so totally in just a couple generations that we have NGOs plus governmental bureaucracies hunting for evidence of racism or sexism, however fragmentary, to prove the need for more transformation. When young men lose interest in sex, as has occurred in Japan and is spreading in the West, something big is happening.

While race is of interest to the WEIRD demographic, sex is more central to their worldview. Catfights among progressives about determining who has more sexual privilege are fun to watch yet challenging for normals to comprehend. Here the LGBT issue has played a major role. Simply put, less than twenty-five years ago, gay issues were peripheral politically, confined to America’s far-Left fringe, while topics like gay marriage were never discussed by mainstream figures. Thanks to media and government action, now LGBT issues are given a place of importance in all discussions of social issues, while soon the Supreme Court will take up gay marriage, which may prove its most hot-button case since Roe v. Wade.

Regardless of what the Supreme Court decides, LGBT issues are another area where the culture war has turned out to be one-sided in the end. Opposition to gay marriage is fading fast, while it barely exists among younger Americans. However, just as with race and gender issues, LGBT advocates are showing minimal magnanimity in victory, preferring to double-down on public dissenters. Even the powerful are being driven from jobs and public life over their opposition, even when quiet, to gay marriage. There is more than a whiff of the Social Justice Warrior (SJW) mob about all this, and the idea of live-and-let live does not seem to be in fashion among the Cultural Marxist Left. It’s difficult to see how America avoids a serious clash between progressives and tradition-minded religious groups over all this.

Notwithstanding the fact that the Cultural Marxists have won fast, and their transformation of the post-modern West has been very quick by any historical standards, the Left is brimming with confidence that their revolution is final. Hence the rhetoric about their enemies being on “the wrong side of history,” heard regularly, even from Obama. But any historian will tell you that history is not read that simply, and is seldom quite so linear: ask Erich Honecker how that March of History worked out.

It’s tough to miss that the post-modern Western Left is immersed in WEIRD narratives so deeply that it is unable to recognize, much less tolerate, alternative viewpoints. We have come a long way from the Bolshevism of the last century, which after a brief period of Leninist experimentation in social matters, turned towards an aggressive traditionalism; Stalin and his Red minions had views on abortion, gender, and sexual minorities that would make FoxNews blush. The revolution needed soldiers and workers, meaning hard men, and what were women for if not to make them?

Today’s social revolutionaries have created a post-modern WEIRD paradise that does not seem to know what it wants save permanent revolution. How this new society can be maintained for long without enough children of its own is the great imponderable, since the signature achievement of the sexual revolution that began in the 1960’s, from any big-picture historical perspective, is the amazing decline in fecundity in any society it touches.

Mass immigration is the preferred solution for WEIRDos, because it gets them off the hook for reproducing while providing interesting ethnic restaurants, plus ample cheap labor to do the household chores that affluent progressives don’t seek to do  themselves (until recently many of these domestic tasks — cleaning, fixing, lawn-cutting — were assigned to a family’s children, who no longer exist in numbers).

In the United States, mass immigration, heavily from Latin America, is causing discontent but is seen as a nuisance, at most, by WEIRDos, who seldom know the working-class Americans who do see this as a serious threat to their economic and social well-being. In Europe, however, the influx comes heavily from Africa and Asia, and is mainly Muslim, leading to all kinds of problems, the most visible of them being terrorism.

The recent attacks around Paris have caused another outburst of introspection of a highly limited sort in the West. The Usual Suspects are, of course, explaining that all this unpleasantness has nothing to do with Islam. I’ve castigated this progressive myth-making already, as well as those on the other side, who seem to want a permanent war on Islam, which has more than a billion-and-a-half adherents.

Finding a middle path on discussing this problem is tricky but here we go. I have a Ph.D. in history, not Islamic Studies, which Islamist apologists insist you must if you discuss Islamic anything, but I’ve studied the subject in detail, I know Islam’s history and theology. Just as important, I’ve spent time in Muslim countries in many places, I’ve gotten to know many Muslims of diverse backgrounds: some remain my dear friends, some have been lovers (I came close to marrying a Muslim woman: that’s another story). Without further delay I shall engage in what SJWs call stereotyping and normals term analysis.

Issues of culture and development cannot be decoupled from discussions about the Muslim diaspora in the West. Pakistanis in America — many well educated professionals, nearly all speaking English — are frequently successful immigrants, many are notably patriotic and see no contradiction between their faith and their Americanism. Yet their illiterate co-nationals who come to Britain from the most backwards part of Pakistan — they bring their redneck habits, including cousin-marriage, to Yorkshire — are a breeding ground for crime and extremism. This is not all about Islam, other factors matter too, but we must be able to discuss Islam to understand what is going on.

France, which is home to a quarter of the twenty million Muslims living in Western Europe, likewise presents a complex picture that defies thumbnail assessment. The Parisian concept of laïcité, which was defended staunchly by Marine Le Pen in her New York Times op-ed demanding that France talk about Islamic extremism now, has been a success with more Muslim immigrants than many realize. There are millions of French Muslims, mainly of North African extraction, who have assimilated rather well to life on the other side of the Mediterranean, and many are well adjusted French patriots; some are even supporters of Le Pen’s Front national.

Westerners have a tough time understanding how Islam is actually lived by believers, while WEIRDos, thanks to their biases, seem incapable of grasping the essentials. In the first place, it must be understood that Islam is less a religion than a culture and a complete way of life. It has nothing to do with “religion” as defined by the post-Enlightenment West, which is comfortable with faiths that can be safely placed in a box ninety-five percent of the time, locked away when not in church, temple, or mosque.

Islam, being a programmatic faith not confined to the mosque, provides detailed commentary and rules on daily life, including matters sexual that invariably seem strange to post-modern Westerners, who view any infringement on personal sexuality as oppressive. This is a subject of regular mocking in parts of the Western press. Few care to note that Islam is very like Orthodox or Conservative Judaism in such matters.

Islam as actually lived by its adherents easily breaks down into three basic groups that are replicated everywhere there is Islam. Seeing how people live their faith, day in and day out, is illuminating. There is a genuinely radical element — perhaps ten percent, rather more in the West — that advocates Islamism, that is applying Islam in politics, by force if necessary. The aggressively pious vanguard of this sort pushes violence, even murderous barbarism, to further its aims. It has no sympathy for the West and seeks confrontation and victory, not dialogue. Its loudest adherents are usually dysfunctional sorts with a criminal past.

On the other side, maybe another ten percent, there are Muslims who actually reject the faith, de facto, but if they’re living in a Muslim country they keep relatively quiet about it, lest they be denounced as “apostates.” Many are well educated. Such atheists, or at least serious Islam-skeptics, are frequently encountered in the West; it’s seldom noted that many such people emigrate to freer countries precisely to be able to live their skepticism openly.

But the vast majority of Muslims fall into a big group that lives the faith as best they can, without questioning its essentials. They try, they fail, they keep trying. They usually make an effort during Ramadan, at least, and if a life crisis appears, they will pray and seek the comfort of the mosque; the rest of the time their lived faith is rather hit-or-miss. In other words, they are completely normal human beings.

It needs to be clear that these majoritarians do not question Islam: if pressed, they will state the problem, the failing, is with them, not the faith. It should be obvious that the group wholly absent from this division-into-threes is the post-modern Western skeptic, the nominal mainline Protestant, or perhaps a very Reform Jew, who’s down with gay marriage since it’s been “reinterpreted” in recent decades. Hipster Jesus — into you with your sins, cool with your ironic vibe — does not have a corollary in Islam. The hardest thing for WEIRDos, who view all religion as odd, and perhaps risible, when not dangerous, to grasp is — Muslims actually believe this stuff.

Not having been touched by the Enlightenment, much less post-modernism, Muslims are on a different planet, intellectually speaking, than WEIRDos. At best, they talk past each other. As someone who has advocated a tough approach to Muslim immigrants who do not seek to assimilate to Western norms, particularly if they have extreme views, some sympathy for them nevertheless is in order here.

It must be deeply confusing to any Muslim newcomer to France to encounter a place of such unbelief and debauchery as Paris, where raw sexuality is everywhere, women run free in every sense, and faiths of all kinds are mocked openly. Free speech is not a French priority, and certain kinds of speech are protected, while others are not. Since I cannot rationally explain why French law protects certain speech, and not others, I don’t expect an unlettered immigrant from West Africa to make sense of it all either.

The list of things that can get you thrown in a French jail for saying is long, including “offensive” speech against various racial, religious, and sexual minorities, but it must be mysterious to Muslims why gross public indecencies against the Prophet are tolerated when denial of the Holocaust, a purely human affair, is not. When a founder of Charlie Hebdo, the publication whose profane cartoons provoked mass murder, says that its editor, Stephane “Charb” Charbonnier, was a provocateur/jerk-off whose offensiveness got everybody killed, we can imagine what less sympathetic Muslims might feel about this case. Not least because Charb was no free speech advocate, rather a far-Left agitator who tried hard to get his political opponents banned while offending every traditionalist, of every stripe, he could.

To illustrate how complex this all actually is, allow me to sketch my good friend A., whom I’ve known for years, a highly assimilated French Muslim. His grandfather came from Algeria after a long career as a decorated French colonial soldier, one of the lucky harkis to escape the bloodbath after Algerian independence, when deGaulle condemned so many who had fought for France to an evil fate. A. has filled those shoes well as a soldier and then a career intelligence officer. His French patriotism is sincere and deep; he has visited Algeria a couple times, his command of Arabic being no greater than mine, and didn’t like it. France is his home, his patrie.

In matters of faith, A. is privately a modest skeptic, but he makes an effort during Ramadan, mostly to appease his father, a kind old gentleman who, like many do, turned to faith in an old age marked by illness and loneliness.  The rest of the year, A. regularly goes boozing and whoring like any counterintelligencer worth his salt. His ceaseless quest for the “right beurette” continues, unfulfilled. He is a Muslim and proud of it, but sincerely hates extremists and admits to feeling more than a little sympathy for the Front national, for its willingness to “stand up for France” (while A. is purely Algerian by background, he possesses a dislike of Germans to match anyone in France).

Yet A.’s views on many matters would distress WEIRDos. He thinks outright atheists are contemptible and views liberals with undisguised distaste, especially if they are Jewish and/or gay, and he is no fan of Israel. It should be noted that A. is no fonder of  newer Muslim immigrants who freeload on welfare. Yet his anti-Semitism is far from deep or uniform, and he reveres Éric Zemmour, a fellow Frenchman of (Jewish) Algerian descent, as someone “who says the truth.” A. wants Muslims to be respected yet thinks it would be best if jihadists were taken out over the ocean in helicopters, Argentinian junta style, and dropped into the deep from 5,000 feet.

What to make of all this? My friend represents a best-case scenario for Europe, a Muslim whose faith is modest, entirely private, and who feels sincerely at home in Europe, but I know his views on many issues would not pass progressive muster. Survey after survey demonstrates that Muslims in Europe broadly possess views that would be shocking to the WEIRD demographic. Significant portions of Europe’s Muslim community, particularly among more recent arrivals, espouse attitudes that are, at best, conditional in their condemnation of violence, i.e. jihad, while their views on Israel and Jews are implacably hostile.

Short of a coercive reeducation program worthy of Mao’s Cultural Revolution I’m not sure what can be done about all this in 2015. Even if Muslim immigration were halted tomorrow — which is surely not on the table yet — Western Europe will still possess twenty million Muslims, many quite unassimilated, who are reproducing at a rate far beyond the native population. It’s difficult to see how this can end well — or peacefully.

The tragedy is that European powers were, until recently, able to inspire loyalty from their Muslims. France got millions of African Muslims, like A.’s grandfather, to fight for their empire in both World Wars, and Britain managed the same. The Ottoman Empire’s pompous declaration of jihad in 1914, on behalf of the Central Powers, went nowhere as Muslim soldiers of the Indian Army turned out to be loyal to the British Empire, the world’s biggest Muslim power, even in battle against fellow Muslims.

Muslims in Russia proved equally faithful to the Tsar during World War I, that country’s aggressive Orthodox Christianity notwithstanding, while Austria-Hungary found that their Bosnian Muslim subjects were their most loyal and combative soldiers. In the Habsburgs’ last war, the 2nd Bosnian Regiment, the legendary Zweier Bosniaken, won more valor decorations than any other of the emperor’s regiments, while Bosnian Muslims died at the front at the highest rate of any of Vienna’s many ethnic groups.

Such tenacious loyalty to an “infidel” empire seems difficult to imagine a century later, but was understandable at the time, for the simple reason that Western colonial powers protected Islam and ensured Muslims could keep their faith and traditions even under an explicitly Christian occupier. Austria-Hungary’s 1878 invasion of Bosnia met stiff resistance from Muslims, but they were soon bought off with generous allowances for sharia, Islamic law, and Muslim conscripts in the Habsburg Army were led in prayer by imams in Austro-Hungarian uniform with a rigor many had never practiced in civilian life. The slogan, “On the path of Allah, for our Austrian homeland,” was cited by Bosnian troops headed to battle in 1914-1918, and it was no lie, for the Habsburgs protected Islam, and for any pious Muslim, Austria-Hungary counted as dar al-Islam.

How, then, are European countries today doing such a terrible job of assimilating Muslim immigrants? In the first place, Christianity has been replaced by secularism, often of an aggressive kind. We have changed; Muslims have not. The sort of in-your-face secularism that’s commonplace in Europe now is difficult for Muslims to relate to, having no resonance with their historical experience, and is viewed with contempt by many of them. Bonds of tribe and kin that have frayed in the West remain powerful among Muslims. Post-modern permissiveness in sexual matters is likewise met with bemused anger by many Muslims, some of whom gleefully rape European women they view as whores.

Crime is one of the great unmentionables in all this, preventing honest dialogue. In 2010, Éric Zemmour was convicted of racial incitement for stating that Muslim immigrants were grossly overrepresented among France’s violent criminals, though few could plausibly state he was wrong on the numbers. Over the last generation, France has created a serious problem in the suburbs of Paris, among other major cities, where Muslim ghettos are crowded with young people who seldom if ever work, living on welfare while plotting crimes of various sorts, while seething with resentment and hate for “infidels” around them. For some, this path of hatred leads to jihad. Here the Paris killers, with their obsession with angry American rap music, were a walking, vapid, and murderous cliche.

Many are now worried about low-grade warfare erupting across Western Europe, as jihadist cells go active and plant bombs and open fire. All over the European Union, in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, police and spies are watching would-be killers closely. Although there is no enduring security fix to this daunting problem, as I’ve explained before, consistent police and intelligence pressure on Salafi radicals can reduce terrorism, if the will exists to sustain such aggressive operations by the security services.

While more terrorism seems likely, it may not be anything as dramatic as alarmists and thrillers would promise. France already faces an Islamic insurgency of a low-grade kind — it is habitually downplayed by the authorities as “isolated incidents” that happen “at random” when shootings and driving cars into people is anything but random — that may continue on low-boil for years, claiming a few victims at a time, not dozens, much less hundreds. French inner cities may come to resemble shambolic American inner cities like Detroit or Chicago, where war-like casualty rates among civilians are similarly dismissed as “street crime,” with the difference that France’s troublemakers will be inspired by Salafi jihadism while being shockingly well armed. Needless to add, more militarization of police and society will follow.

It’s all too soon to tell. All-out civil war — think more Mad Max than Gettysburg — cannot be ruled out at this juncture. What is clear, however, is that Europe has no idea how to respond to this mounting crisis in any politically coherent fashion. Pushing Marine Le Pen, who heads the most popular political party in France, to the margins of the national dialogue about domestic extremism seems certain to increase political polarization when it needs to be reduced. As I’ve stated many times, unless Europe’s mainstream parties find a way to engage alienated voters of the sort to whom the FN and Germany’s PEGIDA appeal, they are surrendering this vital and politically explosive issue — which is only continuing to grow, especially among the young — to the friends of Vladimir Putin, whose commitment to democracy may be less than sincere.

In his professorial way, President Obama has told Europeans that they must assimilate immigrants better, in order to defeat terrorism, without explaining how this might be done. This lecturing has gone down as well in Europe as does European pontificating at Americans how we need to be nicer to blacks: cheap posturing is not a policy, anywhere. Moreover, Obama’s unhelpful hint leaves out the critical question of how many Muslims in Europe actually want to assimilate to a society that many of them openly loathe. (Neither does it help matters when major NATO leaders tell Muslim immigrants that under no circumstances should they assimilate to European ways.) Ample, if anecdotal, evidence suggests that Muslims in Europe who actually want to adopt European values are doing so, at their own pace, while Muslims who want no part of WEIRD anything are rejecting our post-modernism — some of them with violence.

None of this mess, which has been decades in the making, is conducive to easy solutions. There is no European-wide fix available; individual countries will need to fashion bespoke responses, based on the unique circumstances of their own Muslim populations. But a start to getting on the road to societal health would be making clear that immigrants who have no intention of accepting European political values should not enter Europe. In this vein, Ahmed Aboutaleb, the Moroccan-born mayor of Rotterdam, which possesses a large Muslim population, told co-religionists who are uncomfortable with European freedoms that they simply need to “f*** off.”

Such very free speech aside, institutionalized escapism continues to dominate Western debates on this issue. FoxNews recently caused a ruckus on both sides of the Atlantic with a discussion of Muslim “no-go” areas in Europe. The speaker overstated his case, as he tends to do, leading to hysteria among those eager to dismiss any notion that such areas, reminiscent of parts of North Ireland in the 1970’s where British security forces dared not operate, actually exist. The subsequent pontification has been strong, notwithstanding the fact that such no-go areas do exist in some parts of Europe, as any serious analysis would reveal. A brief discussion with any European cop or spook working operational counterterrorism would bring wisdom that would be discomforting to progressives.

The truth about Islam is that it approaches other religions from a triumphalist position, and always has. By default, it anticipates submission, not co-existence in any sense recognizable to the post-Enlightenment West. While its history is hardly all jihad, Islam’s “bloody borders” are a matter of record, not opinion. The last Ottoman effort to subdue Europe — one of many Islamic invasion efforts over the centuries — came in 1683, and was stopped, just barely, at Vienna. That sounds like a long time ago, but when King John Sobieski’s Polish cavalry appeared from the north to cut the Ottoman siege short, Harvard had been open for nearly a half-century, America’s coastal colonies were thickly settled, and Ben Franklin’s birth was barely two decades off. This was over three centuries ago, but hardly ancient history.

Many progressives fall prey to an argument, composed of equal parts narcissism and masochism, whereby jihadism and Muslim anger are really the West’s fault. The source of all this rage, you see, is to be found in recent Western “colonial blunders,” and certainly has nothing to with Islam. Colonialism has caused all sorts of bad issues — it’s difficult to see how France or Britain would have their big problems with Muslim immigrants without their former empires in the closet — but if it’s fair to point the finger at Western colonialism, it’s equally fair to cite all the centuries of examples when Muslim countries tried to overrun Europe at sword-point, killing, raping, and taking slaves all the way.

History matters and we must understand Muslim narratives about the past. This does not mean the West should agree with those, and we must not allow historical grievances, real or imagined, to be employed in defense of terrorism and murder. Above all, Muslims are people like all the others, and the average Muslim obsesses about such matters no more than the average American seethes about the Alamo. Muslims, on close inspection, turn out to have all the usual human frailties and complexes, not all of them conducive to peaceful coexistence.

The number of Muslims actually eager to wage jihad is small, but to deny that such sorts exist, and that they are motivated by a toxic brew of nihilism and aggression, in the name of Islam, is to perpetuate a dangerous lie. Moreover, opinion polling among Muslims, including in the West, quickly reveals that many of them strongly dislike lots of things about us, including Western sexual mores and Jews. There is nothing to be done about the issue of anti-Semitism at this point — the desire of some French Jews now to simply escape is sadly understandable — while Muslim discomfort about our post-modern ways is intractable unless we are willing to change who we are to appease relatively small, if vocal, numbers of newcomers. That matter will be left to voters, most of whom I doubt will be inclined to abandon their comfortable lifestyles to please angry foreigners on welfare who are responsible for a lot of street crime.

To sum up, the triumph of the WEIRD demographic in the West over the last half-century, so such post-moderns now dominate our scholarly, media and political elites, means that having a genuine discussion with Muslims appears impossible. While Christian Europe of the last century still had some common ground with believing Muslims, the gap today between our societal values and those of most Muslims is vast and cannot be overcome without huge changes, perhaps on both sides, that seem unlikely to happen without bloodshed.

To make matters worse, the only European country that is making an effort to appeal to normal people of faith in dangerous times is Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, the Kremlin, speaking through its religious mouthpieces, has staked out a clear position that terrorism is unacceptable, but so is intentionally offending religious people with blasphemy. In this formulation, Russia — and Russia alone — offers a welcoming home to Christians and Muslims alike, while driving extremists of all sorts, whether they be jihadists or Communist cartoonists, out of the public square. Religion is not the problem, Russia makes clear, and its support for traditional religions here is consistent — extremism is.

WEIRDos in the West naturally find all this a tad comedic, and they were mightily surprised when Pope Francis (“One cannot provoke; one cannot insult other people’s faith; one cannot make fun of faith”) came alarmingly close to towing the Kremlin line about Charlie Hebdo. Yet again, post-moderns were distressed to discover that the Pope of Rome is actually a Catholic. You have to be part of the WEIRD demographic to find it “shocking” when traditional religion stands up against aggressive blasphemy.

Europe is in real danger here. The possibility of mass violence, caused by jihadist insurgents who are painted as “criminals” by the political and media elite, is serious and the gross decline in European military strength since the end of the Cold War does not provide assurance that such messiness could be brought under control quickly. In that case, radicalization will beget counter-radicalization and grave violence between Muslims and native Europeans should be expected. In that case, madmen like Anders Breivik will turn out to be trendsetters of an odious kind. Here the progressive need to find Islamophobia, which seems to concern many on the Left more than armed jihadism, does not promote stability.

As Europe descends into chaos and violence, a dystopian future wanted by no sane person, who will be there to stave of total collapse? Some are already planning for this, quietly, but most of Europe is not — how can governments plan for something they dare not even name? — and we can expect NATO to be unready for what may be coming. Having participated in many defense exercises with NATO, I can state confidently that the very last thing the U.S. military wants to get caught up in is European chaos. If the German military, far too small to contain mass violence, appeals to Stuttgart, where the U.S. European Command is headquartered, for assistance, somehow emails will be lost and calls will be “missed.” It’s impossible to imagine Obama committing American troops to putting down Muslim riots and worse in Europe.

However, Vladimir Putin will be waiting by the phone, eager to “help” Europe in its time of troubles. Not to mention that Putin comes from the Russian secret police tradition, where you create problems in order to solve them. Kremlin wags are eager to remind everyone how many times Holy Russia has selflessly saved the continent from Western European madness, in 1814 and in 1945 in particular, and suddenly the man in Moscow will appear as a savior, a warrior of faith himself — not at all like Europe and America’s weak-willed elites — who can appeal to moderates of all sorts, Christian and Muslim alike, to reject violence and extremism. This scenario is fanciful only if you are blind to what Putin wants, and how bad the situation in Europe actually is. When a drowning Europe needs Putin’s urgent assistance, our WEIRD demographic may find out that history did not turn out quite as they had been promised.

There was no “Intelligence Failure” in Paris

The smoke has barely cleared from the fifty-four hours of terror around Paris that captured the horrified attention of the world. The seventeen victims are journalists, police officers, average people shopping at a Jewish grocery. One terrorist remains at large at this hour, while three are dead, including the Kouachi brothers who were the centerpiece of this murderous mayhem.

That these self-styled mujahidin, native born French citizens all, went out in a blaze of glory was easily predictable — indeed I did predict it on the day this story broke, when I also pointed out that murdering “those who insult the Prophet” isn’t exactly news in Europe, while jihadists returning home from foreign wars to cause war in France in the name of Islam … well, that’s been going on for nearly twenty years, when the heavily armed Roubaix Gang went down shooting just as this new cadre of killers has just done.

That something like what has just happened was inevitable in France also did not require clairvoyance, and back in June, after Mehdi Nemmouche murdered three innocents in Brussels, I told you that more domestic terrorism was coming. Despite the fact that Nemmouche was a known radical who had spent over a year in Syria, waging jihad, and French intelligence had a thick file on him, Paris, which is simply overwhelmed by the number of potential terrorists now, lost track of the killer. As I stated a few months ago:

If French intelligence and police can lose track of a high-interest possible terrorist even when allies are helping, one has to wonder how much more terrorism is coming. It’s clear that Paris is simply overwhelmed by the sheer number of its citizens going to Syria and returning home even more radical. In response to the failure of France’s counterterrorism efforts yet again, emulating the Merah case, Bernard Squarcini, the former DCRI director, demanded “ambitious reforms” of the intelligence system to meet this rising threat, adding that “the umpteenth intelligence reform led by [Interior Minister] Manuel Valls has clearly changed nothing, since there are still some glaring shortcomings in the detection of jihadis.” There is not much time left to repair the system. Three dead in Brussels ought to be enough. If major changes are not implemented soon, more innocent people will die.

The above-mentioned Valls, now France’s prime minister, surveying the latest outburst of savagery in Paris, has told the public of “a clear failing” with “cracks” in the security apparatus. This, however, is one of those phrases tossed off by worried politicians seeking to shift blame, and is essentially meaningless.

Many are now asking how France, which is no slouch in the intelligence game, possessing competent security services and police, could have “missed” this monstrosity. The answer to that question will be unedifying to the public, which has been conditioned to expect magical performance from spies and cops, who are mere mortals overburdened by potential threats. What happened in the Nemmouche case should illustrate how imperfect French intelligence is on counterterrorism, despite its solid HUMINT, SIGINT, and collaboration with partners:

On his return, the DGSE [General Directorate of External Security, i.e. French foreign intelligence] which is supposed to track our French jihadis in Syria, apparently missed him. It was German customs that detected him in March 2013, intrigued by his meandering route home, via Malaysia, Bangkok, and Istanbul. Germany reported his crossing to Paris, and there, officially, the DCRI [Central Directorate of Domestic Intelligence, i.e. French domestic intelligence], listed him as someone that should be kept under surveillance. In other words a suspect recorded on a so-called “S” file. From March to May 30, the day of his chance arrest, so for over two months, Nemmouche completely disappeared off the radar.  Meanwhile he is suspected of having perpetrated the shooting in Brussels on May 24.

The case of Mohammed Merah, the killer of seven innocents, four of them Jewish children, in the south of France in March 2012 — before he, too, went down amid shouts of jihad — provided an unheeded warning of sorts, since it turned out that French intelligence had been a good deal more informed about the twenty-three year-old jihadist than they let on at first. His travels to Afghanistan and Pakistan got Merah branded a “special target” by the secret services, but they lost track of him too.

By the fall of 2013, French intelligence was warning the public that the staggering and unprecedented numbers of French nationals traveling to Syria and Iraq to wage jihad, most of whom were likely to return home angrier and more lethal, represented a serious threat that the secret services were hard-pressed to counter, thanks to inadequate resources.

By the late summer of 2014, it was apparent that French intelligence was simply overwhelmed by the numbers of potential terrorist targets — furious young men (and women) eager to wage jihad at home. As a seasoned counterterrorism magistrate complained, French intelligence and police were finding themselves “disarmed” in the face of this new threat, while the lack of legal “teeth” meant that there was not much that the secret services could actually do about the many potential terrorists in the country. Likely trouble-makers could be arrested upon returning from jihad abroad, but they could not be kept in custody for long, and many were being released angrier than they were before, creating an explosive situation.

That, exactly, is the rub. France’s intelligence apparatus is good at what they do. The Kouachi brothers were on relevant watch-lists, their files with the secret services were surely thick and well annotated, and I have no doubt that many Western intelligence services, at some point, had tracked their goings and doings to some extent — and it’s likely much of that information was shared with foreign partners, as it’s supposed to be.

In terms of profile, these jihadist murderers fit it perfectly, to an almost comical extent: angry young losers, drug users with criminal records, coming from broken families, known unpleasantly in their community as violent troublemakers. There was even the obligatory aspiring rap artist cliche. These are essentially spree killers seeking an ideology to justify their murderous urges, and in Salafi jihadism they found it: that being the hate-based worldview of choice for many would-be terrorists these days, anywhere. When travel to foreign jihad was added to the Kouachi dossier, the French intelligence services had something to work with, but not enough to keep them off the streets for long. It was inevitable that the security apparatus — which can only track so many targets in “real time” or something close to it, and resources are always finite — placed other, more dangerous-looking jihadists higher on the list to be watched than the Paris killers.

That was a mistake, albeit one that every security service makes all the time; only on rare occasion are the consequences of such routine bad calls public and horrific. As a former spook myself, I am sympathetic to those who have to make tough calls based on invariably imperfect information. Two key points must be made. First, movies and the Snowden Operation, both of which are based in lies and fantasy, have created the impression that Western intelligence enacts 24/7 or “total” surveillance with ease. This is simply not true. Even with excellent SIGINT, as France possesses, all the information in the world — which, let it be remembered, must be analyzed by someone, looking for nuggets amid countless hours of mundane conversation by low-IQ jihadists about TV, rap artists, and problems with parents and girlfriends — only matters when action can be taken.

I suspect that the Paris outrage will turn out a lot like the 9/11 debacle in the United States, said to be an “intelligence failure” when it was really nothing of the sort. Oh, there were missed pieces of the puzzle, to be sure, dots not connected as the 9/11 Commission investigators so liked to put it, but the painful reality is that, in the run-up to what al-Qa’ida called its Planes Operation, U.S. intelligence worked pretty much as it was supposed to under the legal norms established in the 1970’s. There was only as much information sharing as the law allowed, and besides what would the FBI actually have done anyway?

I am confident that what French intelligence knew about the Kouachi brothers and their friends in the months and years before they took Paris by storm will shock the innocent and uninformed, as it will paint them correctly as violent cretins with murder on their warped minds. But that contingent is not as small in France as the public would like to think and French security simply didn’t know what to do with them. To be absolutely clear: What now looks like the obvious choice — arrest them and keep them off the streets — was never a realistic option.

To provide a relevant example, a few years ago I was discussing these sorts of things with intelligence officials from a friendly Muslim country, which like all of them possesses an extremism problem. Their solution is a deradicalization program to divert would-be troublemakers back to some sort of normal life before they kill. I am skeptical of all such deradicalization programs, since most sound too good to be true, but I listened carefully to the details of this rather well-thought out initiative.

In the first place, these spooks don’t have to worry much about civil liberties, so they track online activities carefully, and they have all potentially worrisome mosques wired too. Hence they find young men, usually maladjusted late teenagers, talking like potential jihadists and they arrest them. They are packed off to a tennis prison, a pleasant place without high walls, where for several months they get counseling from imams who gently explain that Islam is not about decapitating “apostates,” that real Muslims should improve spiritually, and they need to be law-abiding citizens. The young men receive vocational training and career counseling, plus help with job placement, with the aim of returning them soon to a normal life.

After a few months of this program, most of the inmates are released; nearly ninety percent after six months of deradicalization are assessed as fit to rejoin society. The spies track them, and at a year after release, nearly ninety percent of the “graduates” are considered to be no sort of threat. These are very impressive numbers, so, being my skeptical self, I asked the obvious question: “What about the ones who don’t deradicalize?”

Without batting an eye, the senior intelligence official responded, “Oh, we just keep them.”

There it is: would-be jihadists considered a threat to the public are kept in custody until they “get better” or forever, whichever comes first. This is a wise response, in my view, but let’s be honest here, it’s also nothing any Western law-based democracy is going to enact in 2015.

Western intelligence services since 9/11 have become very proficient at counterterrorism, with impressive collaboration in all disciplines, and France’s services rank among the best anywhere. If there was an “intelligence failure” here, and we can be sure that embarrassed Paris politicos will be looking for one, it was small-scale. The real problem is that French politicians, as in all Western countries, have absolutely no idea what to do with the burgeoning numbers of aspiring jihadist killers in their midst.

That is a political, not security, issue, that no amount of funds or personnel devoted to intelligence work can ameliorate. Besides, I sense no desire for France to become an East German-like counterintelligence state where one-third of the population is secretly reporting on the other two-thirds, including friends and family, to the secret police. Hence a political solution is required to Europe’s mounting crisis with homegrown Islamism, since there is no security solution at hand, and that knotty issue will be the subject of my next commentary.

Parisian Terror: Will Europe Finally Wake Up?

I woke today to appalling news of an atrocity in Paris. Black-clad gunmen stormed the office of a popular magazine, assassinating journalists. In truth, I was not surprised, given the rising wave of terrorism in France recently; like many in the counterterrorism community, I’ve been expecting professional-style attacks of this kind in Europe, but this news cannot fail to shock.

The story is only now coming into focus but the killers remain at large, at this hour, while at least a dozen victims are confirmed dead, including two policemen, one of whom was murdered execution-style, based on graphic footage. The target was Charlie-Hebdo, a left-wing magazine known for skewering sacred cows of many breeds, including Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. Four cartoonists who were especially reviled by extremists are confirmed dead, and the assassins are reported to have asked for them by name: think of this a jihadist version of “targeted killing.”

The real question I have, as someone who has followed jihadist terrorism in Europe, as both a scholar and practitioner, for a couple decades, is: How could anyone be surprised by this? Jihad-watchers, with quiet nods from European officials, have been warning for years about the mayhem to come when the thousands – yes, thousands – of Europeans fighting with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria return home angry, skilled at killing, and well-armed.

Moreover, assassinating Europeans who “insult Islam” is hardly new. Theo van Gogh, the Dutch journalist-cum-provocateur who was indelicate in his attacks on Islam, was butchered on the streets of Amsterdam by an angry teenager with a knife back in 2004. A decade later, the masked killers are clad in black, bearing Kalashnikovs and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher – a marked jump in professionalism and firepower, but the intent remains the same.

Watching on-scene video, it’s clear that the assassins today did not learn how to scoot-and-shoot on the Internet. Yet even then, the idea of well-armed, hardened jihadist killers coming back to France to cause murderous mayhem isn’t ripped from today’s headlines – it was going on fully twenty years ago.

As I’ve explained in detail, back in 1995 French jihadists returned from the battlefields of Bosnia, where they were fighting with al-Qa’ida-linked units, to bring the jihad home. They pulled off several impressive armed robberies in the French-Belgian border region – they were stealing to get funds for terrorism – and the police had a tough time catching up with what they called the Roubaix Gang. When they finally did, the jihadists, who had an abundance of automatic weapons and were better armed than the cops, chose to go down in fire and glory rather than surrender. Their leader, the charismatic convert Lionel Dumont, alone escaped death, managing to evade capture for the better part of a decade by escaping to the global jihadist underground in a manner that has never fully been explained.

Despite the fact that the Roubaix Gang was all over the French media twenty years ago, not least because they came close to blowing up the G7 meeting in Lille, the story did not result in much examination of what was going on with heavily armed French citizens trying to bring jihad-of-the-sword home. The story disappeared down the memory hole and became something polite people did not want to discuss.

The trend has continued to the present day. The butchering of Jewish children and French servicemen by a self-styled jihadist was treated as an unpleasant one-off, while the rise of a young French convert to a position of power in the Islamic State in Syria has been considered more a curiosity than an alarming portent. Too many Europeans have been eager to dismiss all this as “random” or “senseless” and, at worst, the by-product of “racism” and “failures of assimilation.” Officials have sung the same tune in public, with the recent wave of car-terrorism in France being dismissed as having absolutely nothing to do with Islamism or radicalism.

The painful truth is that France today, like much of Europe, faces a profound crisis, as thousands of European Union citizens are waging jihad abroad, most of whom will eventually come home more radical and more proficient at killing. Historical patterns suggest that only five to ten percent of these returnees will engage in terrorism at home, but given the unprecedented numbers of Europeans – there were platoons of Europeans fighting in Bosnia twenty years ago; today there are whole battalions in Syria and Iraq — now serving in the ranks of the fanatical Islamic State, there is no comfort found there.

French intelligence is competent and, behind closed doors, has a realistic understanding of this threat, but they are overwhelmed and constrained by timid political masters. The scary truth is that many EU countries now face a wave of returning jihadists that no European security service can hope to monitor and deter with any degree of confidence, based on existing laws and norms. The full story of today’s atrocity will take time to emerge, but we can be sure that the details will not be comforting to progressives and bien-pensants, who per custom will attempt to play down the ugly reality. As someone who recently predicted more terrorism in Europe in 2015, some of it sure to be “mysterious,” I hate to be right so soon in this new year.

It does not help realistic debate that Europeans who try to discuss this threat are routinely shut down and marginalized, to use a favorite progressive term, by mainstream forces who desperately seek no debate at all. Last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel castigated fellow citizens, the so-called PEGIDA movement, who since the autumn have been peacefully protesting against Islamization and radicalism. They are racists who have no place in a democratic society, the chancellor made clear, and on cue Germany’s great and good – politicos, magnates, celebrities, clerics – backed Merkel in her public effort to silence PEGIDA.

Therefore the only winner in today’s atrocity is Vladimir Putin and his European friends. As I’ve noted for some time, right-wing friends of the Kremlin are the only force in Europe that has consistently and unapologetically sought to address rising public concerns about jihadism in their midst, while mainstream parties have surrendered the field on this vital issue to people on Putin’s payroll. After today, Marine Le Pen, whose condemnation of Islamism and affection for Putin seem equally sincere, may wish to start planning her inauguration party as president of France. You can be sure her friend from Moscow will have a seat of honor.

UPDATE (1130 EST, 7 JAN): Video of the assassins includes audio of one of the terrorists speaking something that sounds an awful lot like Russian (my Russian is good, but more importantly several native speakers have said this sounds like Russian to them too); given the explosive nature of this revelation, it would be wise to wait for official voice analysis before conclusions are jumped to. That said, counterintelligence hands who know the Russians will recall that the Kremlin has a long history of using Chechen agents in false-flag terrorism going back two decades.

UPDATE (1205 EST, 7 JAN): Since I’ve heaped scorn on European politicos who refuse to seriously address the issue of jihadism, it bears noting that today, when asked about the Paris atrocity, White House spokesman Josh Earnest refused to say if it was terrorism. This from the administration that called the Fort Hood attack an “incident of workplace violence.” Seriously, if executing journalists to silence them does not count as terrorism, I’m not sure what does. Eternal shame on Obama and his minions here.

UPDATE (1615 EST, 7 JAN): French media have identified the three suspects in today’s attack, who as of this hour remain at large: Saïd Kouachi (born 1980), Chérif Kouachi (born 1982, and who appeared in a 2008 AP story about support for the Iraqi jihad), Hamyd Mourad (born 1996): they are of Algerian background, and lived in Gennevilliers (Hauts-de-Seine). The Kouachis have substantial police records — and, one expects, thick files with French intelligence — and are rumored to have recently returned from Syria. More soon ….

Putin’s Orthodox Jihad

Yesterday Russia announced a revised military doctrine, signed by President Vladimir Putin, that names NATO as the Kremlin’s main adversary and clarifies that Russia’s military reserves the right to respond to conventional threats with both nuclear and conventional weapons. This is no big change, since it only amplifies existing doctrine, but its explicit emphasis on NATO as the primary threat to Russia’s security has raised Western eyebrows, as intended. Anyone who thought the West, led by the United States, could lay waste to Russia’s economy through sanctions brought about by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, without significant pushback from Moscow, is too naive to deal in such important affairs. The new year promises to be a busy one, with myriad forms of retaliation emanating from Moscow, some possibly very unpleasant, as I recently explained.

My explanation back in March, on the heels of Russia’s theft of Crimea, that we are in Cold War 2.0, whether we like it or not, was dismissed as alarmist by those not well acquainted with Putin and his system, but has been borne out by events over the last nine months. One reason oft-cited by skeptics regarding the state of relations between Russia and the West is the supposed absence of an ideological component to the rivalry, which is a necessary precondition for any reborn Cold War. President Barack Obama has been one of the leading proponents of this hopeful view, stating: “This is not another Cold War that we’re entering into. After all, unlike the Soviet Union, Russia leads no bloc of nations. No global ideology. The United States and NATO do not seek any conflict with Russia.”

As I explained back in April, this view is wrong, and has only gotten wronger over the last several months. In fact, Putin should be seen as the leader of what I termed the Anti-WEIRD Coalition, the vanguard of the diverse movement that is opposed to Western post-modernism in its political and social forms — and particularly to its spread by governments, corporations, NGOs, or the bayonets of the U.S. military. While this should not be seen as any formal alliance, nor is it likely to become one, there exists an agglomeration of countries that are opposed to what the West, and especially America, represent on the world stage, and this was the year that Putin unambiguously took its helm.

What motivates this is a complex question. Putin is a complex character himself, with his worldview being profoundly shaped by his long service as a Soviet secret policeman; he exudes what Russians term Chekism — conspiracy-based thinking that sees plots abounding and is reflexively anti-Western, with heavy doses of machismo and KGB tough-talk. Hence persistent Western efforts to view Putin as any Western sort of democratic politician, albeit one with a strange affectation for judo and odd bare-chested photo-ops with scary wild animals, invariably miss the mark.

This year ending also saw the mask drop regarding Putin’s ideology beyond his bone-deep Chekism. In his fire-breathing speech to the Duma in March when he announced Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Putin included not just venerable KGB classics like warnings about the Western Fifth Column and “national traitors,” but also paeans to explicit Russian ethnic nationalism buttressed by Orthodox mysticism, with citations of saints from millennia past. This was the culmination of years of increasingly unsubtle hints from Putin and his inner circle that what ideologically motivates this Kremlin is the KGB cult unified with Russian Orthodoxy. Behind the Chekist sword and shield lurks the Third Rome, forming a potent and, to many Russians, plausible worldview. That this take on the planet and its politics is intensely anti-Western needs to be stated clearly.

But what of Putin’s actual beliefs? This knotty question is, strictly speaking, unanswerable, since only he knows his own soul. Putin’s powerful Chekism is beyond doubt, while many Westerners are skeptical that he is any sort of Orthodox believer. According to his own account, Putin’s father was a militant Communist while his mother was a faithful, if quiet, Orthodox believer; one wonders what holidays were like in the Putin household. He was baptized in secret as a child but was not any sort of engaged believer during his KGB service — that would have been impossible, not least due to the KGB’s role in persecuting religion — but by his own account, late in the Soviet period, Putin reconciled his Chekism with his faith by making the sign of the cross over his KGB credentials. By the late 1990’s, Putin was wearing his baptismal cross openly, for all bare-chested photo ops.

The turn to faith in middle-age, after some sort of life crisis, is a staple of conversion and reversion stories. In his last years in power, Saddam Hussein began talking a lot about Islam openly, which was dismissed as political theater in the West, but in retrospect seems to have been at least somewhat sincere. Did Putin opt for Orthodoxy after a mid-life crisis? I am an Orthodox believer myself and, having carefully watched many video clips of Putin in church and at religious events, I can state without reservation that Putin knows what to do. His religious act — kissing icons, lighting candles, interacting with clerics — is flawless, so Putin is either a sincere Orthodox or he has devoted serious study to looking and acting like one.

Whether this faith is genuine or a well-honed pose, Putin’s potent fusion of KGB values and Orthodoxy has been building for years, though few Westerners have noticed. Early in Putin’s years in the Kremlin, the younger generation of Federal Security Service (FSB) officers embraced a nascent ideology they termed “the system” (sistema), which was a sort of elitist Chekism — toughness free of corruption and based in patriotism — updated for the new 21st century. However, this could have limited appeal to the masses, so its place was gradually taken by a doctrine termed “spiritual security.” This involved the ideological fusion of the FSB and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), culminating in the 2002 dedication of an Orthodox church at the Lubyanka, the FSB — and former KGB’s — notorious Moscow headquarters. It suddenly became fashionable for senior FSB officers to have conversion experiences, while “spiritual security” offered Putin’s Russia a way to defend itself against what it has long seen as the encroachment of decadent post-modern Western values. Just how seriously Putin took all this was his statement that Russia’s “spiritual shield” was as important to her security as her nuclear shield.

Nearly all Western experts, being mostly secularists when not atheists, paid no attention to these clear indications of where Putin was taking Russia, while the view of the few who did notice was colored by the perception that this simply had to be a put-up job by the Kremlin. But what if it is not? Skeptics are correct to note that Chekists have had a toxic and convoluted relationship with the ROC ever since Stalin, that failed Orthodox seminarian, resurrected the remnants of the Church, what little had survived vicious Bolshevik persecution, during the darkest days of the Great Patriotic War to buttress the regime with faith and patriotism — all tightly controlled by the secret police. There was the rub. Under the Soviets, all senior ROC appointments were subject to Chekist review, while nobody became a bishop without the KGB having some kompromat on him. This was understood by all, including the fact that a distressing number of ROC senior clerics were actual KGB agents. It’s not surprising that Putin omits from his CV that he worked for a time in the KGB’s Fifth Directorate, which supervised religious bodies, leading some to speculate that Putin’s relationship with certain ROC bishops extends deep into the late Soviet period.

The ROC is not Russia’s state religion, as Putin and top bishops have been at pains to state, but it cannot be denied that the Moscow Patriarchate’s close ties to the Kremlin grant it a very special relationship with Putinism. Whether this actually is symphonia, meaning the Byzantine-style unity of state and church which is something of an Orthodox ideal, in stark contrast to American notions of separation of church and state, remains to be seen, but Orthodoxy has become the close political and ideological partner of the Kremlin in recent years, a preferred vehicle for explicit anti-Western propaganda.

ROC agitprop, which has Kremlin endorsement, depicts a West that is declining down to its death at the hands of decadence and sin, mired in confused unbelief, bored and failing to even reproduce itself. Patriarch Kirill, head of the church, recently explained that the “main threat” to Russia is “the loss of faith” in the Western style, while ROC spokesmen constantly denounce feminism and the LGBT movement as Satanic creations of the West that aim to destroy faith, family, and nation. It is in this context that Putin’s comments at last year’s Valdai Club event ought to be seen:

Another serious challenge to Russia’s identity is linked to events taking place in the world. Here there are both foreign policy and moral aspects. We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization. They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual. They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.

The excesses of political correctness have reached the point where people are seriously talking about registering political parties whose aim is to promote pedophilia. People in many European countries are embarrassed or afraid to talk about their religious affiliations. Holidays are abolished or even called something different; their essence is hidden away, as is their moral foundation. And people are aggressively trying to export this model all over the world. I am convinced that this opens a direct path to degradation and primitivism, resulting in a profound demographic and moral crisis.

This week the ideological ante was upped by the Kremlin with the comments of Fr. Vsevolod Chaplin, a media gadfly cleric, who gave a very long newspaper interview in which he castigated, among other things, radical Islam, usury, and the West generally, but it was his comments on the current conflict with America that got all the attention. Chaplin minced no words, proclaiming that Russia’s God-given goal today is halting the global “American project.” As he explained:

It is no coincidence that we have often, at the price of our own lives … stopped all global projects that disagreed with our conscience, with our vision of history and, I would say, with God’s own truth .. Such was Napoleon’s project, such was Hitler’s project. We will stop the American project too.”

Chaplin added the usual tropes about Western decadence compared to Russian spiritual strength, waxing nationalist and Orthodox in a manner much like Putin has done many times. This interview was viewed as strange by most Westerners, but it must be realized that Chaplin, for all his inflammatory statements, is hardly some lone cleric talking crazy. He is the official spokesman of the Moscow Patriarchate who has a very close relationship with Patriarch Kirill; he appears in the media regularly and has received a raft of decorations from the ROC and the Russian state.

The forty-six year old Chaplin regularly makes statements that reflect a patriotic and religiously hardline stance on, well, everything. To cite only a few of his utterances to the media, Chaplin recently denounced a Hobbit movie promotion in Moscow as a Satanic symbol that would bring evil to the city; he stated that the Pussy Riot case was proof that “The West gives its support to divide the people of Russia”; he advocated a national dress code for Russia, citing rising immorality (“It is wrong to think that women should decide themselves what they can wear in public places or at work … If a woman dresses like a prostitute, her colleagues must have the right to tell her that.”); and he has been particularly vocal in his opposition to Western-backed homosexuality: “it is one of the gravest sins because it changes people’s mental state, makes the creation of a normal family impossible, and corrupts the younger generation. By the way, it is no accident that the propaganda of this sin is targeted at young people and sometimes at children. It deprives people of eternal bliss.”

Chaplin’s biggest theme is that the decadent, post-modern West, led by the frankly Satanic United States — whose separation of church and state, per Chaplin, constitutes “a monstrous phenomenon that has occurred only in Western civilization and will kill the West, both politically and morally” — has no future. According to the ROC, speaking through its spokesman, the triumph of same-sex marriage means that the West doesn’t even have fifty years left before its collapse, and it will be up to Russia then to save what can be saved, to “make Europe Christian again, that is, go back to the ideals that once made Europe.”

While it is tempting to dismiss such talk as ravings, even when they come from the official spokesman of Putin’s own church, they have deep resonance with more serious thinkers whom Putin admires. Ivan Ilyin, a Russian philosopher who fled the Bolsheviks and died in Swiss exile, was reburied at Moscow’s famous Donskoy monastery in 2005 with public fanfare; Putin personally paid for Ilyin’s new headstone. Despite the fact that even Kremlin outlets note the importance of Ilyin to Putin’s worldview, not enough Westerners have paid attention.

They should. A devout Orthodox, Ilyin espoused a unique vision, a Slavophile take on modernity and Russia’s predicament under the militant atheists. He espoused ethnic-religious neo-traditionalism, amidst much talk about a unique “Russian soul.” Of greatest relevance today, he believed that Russia would recover from the Bolshevik nightmare and rediscover itself, first spiritually then politically, thereby saving the world. Ilyin’s take on responsibility for Bolshevism — and its cure — merits examination, as he explained:

The West exported this anti-Christian virus to Russia … Having lost our bond with God and the Christian Tradition, mankind has been morally blinded, gripped by materialism, irrationalism and nihilism … In order to overcome the global moral crisis, we have to return to eternal moral values, that is faith, love, freedom, conscience, family, motherland and nation, but above all faith and love.

Although Ilyin died sixty years ago, he remains to his admirers “the prophet of the new Orthodox Russia which is being born and which alone can give the contemporary world a viable future, providing that it is given time to grow to fruition in contemporary Russia.” As Ilyin wrote to a friend near the end of his life, when the fall of Communism was still decades off:

What are we to do, squeezed between Catholics, Freemasons and Bolsheviks? I answer: Stand firm, standing up with your left hand, which goes from the heart, for Christ the Lord, for His undivided tunic, and, with your right hand, fight to the end for Orthodoxy and Orthodox Russia. And, above all, vigilantly watch those groups which are preparing for Antichrist. All of this – even if we are threatened by apparent complete powerlessness and total solitude.

The sort of uncompromising faith Ilyin stood for, which bears little similarity to Western Christianity much less to post-modern notions of “tolerance,” is made abundantly clear in his numerous writings and speeches. Of particular interest is a speech Ilyin gave in 1925, extolling Lavr Kornilov, a White Russian general who fell in the struggle against Bolshevism (and, not coincidentally, exactly the sort of Orthodox-believing yet non-noble White counter-revolutionary figure much admired by Putin). Ilyin defined what Russia and Orthodoxy now needed: “This idea is more than a single man, more than a feat of one hero. This idea is great as Russia and the sacred as her religion. This is the idea of the Orthodox sword.” He cited the fatal shortcomings of pre-revolutionary Russia as “limp sentimentality, spiritual nihilism and moral pedantry,” and to counter those Russia needed a strong dose of fighting faith. As Ilyin explained:

In calling to love our enemies, Christ had in mind personal enemies of man, not God’s enemies, and not blaspheming molesters, for them drowning with a millstone around their neck was recommended. Urging to forgive injuries, Christ was referring to personal insults to a person, not all possible crimes; no one has the right to forgive the offenses suffered by others or provide for the villains to offend the weak, corrupt children, desecrate churches and destroy the Fatherland. So therefore a Christian is called not only to forgive offenses, but to fight the enemies of God’s work on earth. The evangelical commandment of “non-resistance to evil” teaches humility and generosity in personal matters, and not limpness of will, not cowardice, not treachery and not obedience to evildoers.

This is the vision — uncompromising faith and patriotism, without any sentimentality or weakness — that animates Russia’s holy warriors today, from Fr. Chaplin, and perhaps Vladimir Putin too, on down. Russian Orthodoxy’s church militant is a special breed that tends to mystify Westerners. Certainly the West finds the motley crew of Kremlin-backed Orthodox adventurers and mercenaries battling in the Donbass to be equal parts comical and sinister, yet they have an ideology which they hardly hide. As an Orthodox priest ministering to Russian fighters in Donetsk explained a few months ago — a bearded cleric and tough veteran of the Soviet Afghan war, he is a creature straight out of Ilyin’s dreams — what they are battling against is not the Ukrainian government, nor American neoconservatives, rather the Devil himself. The goal of Moscow’s enemy, as he elaborated, is perfectly clear to the eyes of faith:

The establishment of planetary Satanic rule. What’s occurring here is the very beginning of a global war. Not for resources or territory, that’s secondary. This is a war for the destruction of true Christianity, Orthodoxy. The worldview of the wealthiest men who own almost all the material goods in the world is Satanism. Having summoned the elements of the First and Second World Wars and a Third Information War, and having laid hundreds of millions of the slain at the altar of their father, Satan, they have initiated the Fourth World War. They are intentionally hastening the reign of Antichrist.

As with Vsevolod Chaplin, it’s tempting to dismiss all this as the ravings of a lone nut, but these are no longer fringe views in Putin’s Russia.  Jihad is not a word to be used lightly, given its sinister connotations to the West after 9/11, but this bears more than a little resemblance to Holy War in a Russian and Orthodox variant. Whether Putin really believes all this may be immaterial, since his regime has created and nurtured a virulent ideology, an explosive amalgam of xenophobia, Chekism and militant Orthodoxy which justifies the Kremlin’s actions and explains why the West must be opposed at all costs. Given the economic crisis that Russia now finds itself in, thanks to Western sanctions, during the long and cold winter now starting, we ought to expect more, not fewer, Russians turning to this worldview which resonates with their nation’s history and explains the root of their suffering.

We perhaps should be grateful that the Orthodox Jihad rejects suicide bombings. In the 1930’s, Romania’s fascist Legionary Movement, led by the charismatic Orthodox revolutionary Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, toyed with what terrorism mavens today might term “martyrdom operations,” but these never really caught on. Orthodoxy frowns on suicide, even in a just cause. That, at least, is the good news.

The bad news, however, is that Putin’s uncompromising worldview has more than a few admirers in the West, far beyond the Orthodox realm. Many who reject Moscow’s quasi-religious mysticism nevertheless admire its willingness to take on America directly and offer a counterpoint to armed post-modernism in world affairs. As I’ve previously explained, many European far-right parties have quite a crush on the man in the Kremlin, perhaps due to the money he gives them, but the sincerity of some of the admiration is not in question. In France, Marine Le Pen is leading her National Front to ever-greater heights of political power, and her affection for Putin is unconcealed. “In Russia today there is a mix of exalting nationalism, exalting the church and Christian values,” explained a French politico: “They are now replacing the red star with the cross, and they are representing themselves as the ultimate barrier against the Islamization of the continent.” Since it is far from impossible that Le Pen will be president of France someday, the implications of all this for NATO and the West merit serious consideration.

It would be supremely ironic if the last defender of Europe and European values comes from the East, from a Kremlin controlled by a former KGB officer who mourns the collapse of the Soviet Union yet has rediscovered traditional faith and family values. As discontentment with American-led Europe spreads, the Russian option may look plausible to more Europeans, worried about immigration, identity, and the collapse of their values and economies, than Americans might imagine. Ivan Ilyin, however, might not be surprised by this strange turn of events in the slightest.

The Mysterious Case of David Drugeon

Three weeks ago, McClatchy made worldwide headlines with a remarkable scoop: recent U.S. missile strikes on Al-Qa’ida forces in Syria, the so-called Khorasan Group, explicitly targeted a French national who was a defector from his country’s intelligence services. Citing unnamed European intelligence officials, the article provided considerable detail, though it did not name this mystery man (“Two people, independently of one another, provided the same name, which McClatchy is withholding pending further confirmation.”) Although sources could not agree whether this Frenchman gone rogue had belonged to the French military’s special forces or the country’s foreign intelligence service (DGSE), or perhaps both, the piece left no doubt that this was a very serious problem as the defector, said to be skilled with explosives, represents a grave threat to his former employers. Needless to add, from any counterintelligence viewpoint, such a defector into the jihadist camp — the first from the West by a bona fide intelligence officer — would be very bad news indeed. Worse, the U.S. missile strikes did not manage to kill this most wanted renegade.

While U.S. intelligence officials did not comment to McClatchy on the piece, the reaction in Paris to its publication was swift and solid. Following custom, DGSE had no public utterance on the allegations, but the French Ministry of Defense (MoD) minced no words, declaring that the story was patently false. While Paris admitted they were worried about a mysterious Frenchman, whom they did not name, who is serving Al-Qa’ida, officials stated repeatedly that the wanted man has no connection to French intelligence. One official simply derided the McClatchy report as “stupid.” Whispers followed that the piece may have been a hit job engineered by U.S. officials who are displeased with Paris of late (“Some American leaders do not welcome Paris’ criticisms of the inconsistency or errors of Washington’s policy in Iraq and Syria,” opined one French official). 

My old counterintelligence spidey sense smelled something amiss with this sensational story, so I made the usual inquiries. Old friends in European intelligence circles, including French, were adamant that McClatchy’s scoop was simply wrong, and had to be, since if a French spook had gone over to the mujahidin, European counterintelligence circles — it’s a small world actually — would have talked about little else, and none of my friends had heard any whisper of a high-placed defection. They were as surprised by the McClatchy piece as everyone else was; it was the talk of every water cooler in every European spy agency for a week or more.

Within days the true story began to emerge, and thanks to a comprehensive analysis of this sensational case by L’Express magazine, we now know the truth of the matter. The target of U.S. cruise missiles in late September was a twenty-four year-old French national named David Drugeon, who indeed did cheat death as American missiles rained down on him. His is the unlikely story of a Catholic boy from Brittany who grew up to become an important member of Al-Qa’ida, achieving the youthful success in the jihadist underworld that eluded him in normal life.

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Born in 1989 in the Breton town of Vannes, into a working class family, Drugeon’s upbringing wasnormal. While his mother was a devout Catholic, his neighborhood was ethnically and religiously diverse, with many North Africans. Close to his brother and an avid soccer fan, David seemed like a typical young French boy until 2002, when his world fell apart when his parents divorced. He was thirteen. In a pattern that’s sadly typical, David filled the void in his shattered life with extremist religion.

This was in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and Salafi radicals were in David’s neighborhood, stirring up trouble. He quickly accepted a hardline version of Islam, as did his brother, and began calling himself Daoud. One local Salafi played a father-figure role for the lonely boys, who stayed with their mother after their parents divorced.

Daoud soon had scant interest in anything not relating to extremist Islam. Soccer was in the past, as were his studies. While he had wanted to become an architect, that dream fell to Salafism, as Daoud’s hours and days became devoted to politico-religious indoctrination. As his father explained, “We gave him a choice: either study or religion. He opted for religion.” Back in the neighborhood, Daoud got on the radar of the local police for his extremist activities, while his brother, though a pious Muslim convert, eschewed violent radicalism. By his late teens, the police knew of Daoud’s tendencies, but as he was just a teenager they considered him to be of no real importance, threat-wise, evaluating his small, rag-tag group of local Salafis as “a joke,” conceded a security official.

Daoud came to the attention of the DGSE due to three trips he made to Egypt in 2008-2010. He worked odd jobs in Vannes to finance his visits to Cairo and Alexandria, which he undertook for periods from three to six months, studying at Islamic schools in Egypt, perfecting his Arabic to boot. Yet he remained in touch with his family throughout this period, and outwardly seemed little different: “As far as I could see, he had not changed. He was still the same young man, smiling, sporty, nature-loving and fond of forest walks,” recalled his father.

At no point was Daoud engaged with the French military or its intelligence agencies, Paris has stated more than once. McClatchy made a mistake here, according to the French MoD. Daoud attended a sports training course in the Breton town of Coëtquidan, which happens to be the home of St-Cyr, France’s West Point. This apparently was misread by American reporters. An MoD source, however, was adamant about Drugeon: “He never tried to join the Army. He was never approached by our services. He trained with a civilian organization, and that is all.”

By the spring of 2010, the emerging jihadist abandoned his old life altogether, as L’Express explains:

In 2009 he worked continuously for six months, earning enough money for a visit that he told his father would be similar to his previous ones. On 17 April 2010, his father saw him for the last time.  David/Daoud set off secretly on the road to jihad. He traveled by carpool from Vannes to Brussels, where he boarded a plane. He stopped over in Rome before landing in Cairo. According to our information, he did not travel alone, but was accompanied by a close associate of the imam of the [Vannes] “mosque.”

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Where exactly he went after Cairo is uncertain, but within months Daoud (see picture) was in Pakistan, specifically in the border tribal region of North Waziristan, in the Al-Qa’ida-infested area of Miranshah. He spent the next three years there, going on active campaign with the Taliban for months at a time, gaining a reputation as a skilled bomb-maker and assuming the nom de guerre Souleiman. He was part of a French-speaking jihadist cadre, many of them from the Maghreb, becoming close to their leader, Moez Garsallaoui, a noted Al-Qa’ida fighter and fellow French speaker. In late September 2011, they were joined by a fanatic young Frenchman, Mohamed Merah, who after undergoing weapons training with this group, went back to Toulouse and engaged in a terrible killing spree.

It may not be a coincidence that Merah made his way to the back hills of Miranshah, a place few Europeans can find. Drugeon is possibly the connection between Merah and Al-Qa’ida, as it is difficult to see how the petty criminal from Toulouse could find his way to Pakistan’s wild tribal areas without a friendly sponsor; the two may have met when they were both in Egypt in 2010.

Moez Garsallaoui was killed by an American drone strike in October 2012, while Drugeon survived the attack. Not long after, he abandoned Pakistan and made his way to Syria, like much of Al-Qa’ida’s best cadres, to continue the jihad against the Assad regime. By now he was a leader of the mujahidin himself, despite only being in his early twenties. Legends of his exploits in Syria are widespread but, like nearly all such jihadist tales, impossible to confirm.

His family last heard from Drugeon in June 2010, when letters to both his parents arrived from an unknown location. He had already pressured his mother into converting to Islam, and in his final communication, he exhorted his father to do likewise, promising that the family would “meet in heaven.” Since then, his father has waited for a knock at the door by policemen to tell him of his lost son’s violent end.

Drugeon avoided that American-led end, again, in Syria a few weeks ago. The odds of war suggest that he cannot escape the long arm of U.S. drones and cruise missiles — or perhaps the savage infighting among jihadist groups in Syria — indefinitely. Until then, he will continue to rise in Al-Qa’ida ranks and burnish his legend of the convert from Brittany who led the fight against the “infidel” in several countries.

We can put to rest McClatchy’s claim that Drugeon is any sort of French super-spy gone rogue. It cannot be ruled out that, to cover up something that might look bad, Paris is leaving out parts of the Drugeon tale, perhaps even important parts. Frequently jihadists are approached by security services to cooperate, sometimes with more than a whiff of coercion, and the story that is presented to the public later is too simple (Merah’s case certainly was more complicated than initially believed). It is possible that Drugeon cooperated with French intelligence at some point, Parisian denials notwithstanding, but McClatchy’s account of a top operative, some sort of French James Bond, defecting to Al-Qa’ida is simply untrue. It belongs in the movies, not the newspapers.

Iran’s Secret New Balkan Spy-Terror Offensive

An important European security issue I’ve tried to raise awareness about for years is the nefarious role played by Iranian intelligence in Southeastern Europe, above all in Bosnia-Hercegovina. Tehran’s covert tentacles in that unfortunate country reach deep, since Iran began extending its malign influence there back in 1990, as Communism collapsed in Yugoslavia, and the mullahs dispatched spies with cash to Sarajevo to buy politicians, spread radicalism, and recruit and train terrorists. Iranian intelligence, meaning both its civilian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (VEVAK) and the paramilitary Revolutionary Guards Corps (Pasdaran), became very influential among Bosnian Muslims in the 1990’s thanks to their secret alliance with the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), which has ruled in Sarajevo for most of the post-Yugoslav period. I’ve explained this messy saga in detail in my book Unholy Terror.

When the United States and NATO intervened in Bosnia’s civil war in the latter half of 1995, the presence of hundreds of Iranian spies in the country was a major concern, and pressure from Washington, DC, forced the SDA to become more discreet about its links with Tehran. Yet these have never disappeared, and for VEVAK and Pasdaran, Bosnia remains very much “their” playground. As Sarajevo would ultimately like to join NATO and the European Union, they understand that every few years the Americans and the EU will put pressure on them to reduce their ties to Iran, particularly to its intelligence services. A sort of Balkan kabuki theater inevitably follows, with promises by the SDA to crack down hard, this time. A few Iranian “diplomats” are discreetly asked to leave the country, some of the more overt Iranian intelligence fronts in Bosnia shut their doors, usually only temporarily, and the Americans and Europeans are bought off for a couple years. And the Iranians remain.

The result of all this is that Iran has a considerable espionage base in Bosnia, which they view as a safe haven for their secret operations in the rest of Europe. Of greatest concern are the detectable ties between Iranian intelligencers and Salafi jihadist groups in Bosnia, some of which operate more or less openly (Sunni-Shia disputes notwithstanding, Tehran is happy to arm, train and equip Salafi jihadists, and nowhere more than Bosnia, where they have been doing that for over two decades). This Tehran-Sarajevo spy-terror nexus cannot be divorced from radical activities in Vienna, since Austria’s capital in many ways is the de facto capital of Salafi jihadism in Southeastern Europe, as well as a major playground for Iranian spies. These form an extended web of malevolence that stretches across Eastern and Central Europe.

Things came to a head in the spring of 2013, however, when the behavior of Iranian spies in Bosnia became so dangerous that Sarajevo was forced to do something about it. In addition to their normal sponsoring of jihadist fronts and radical NGOs in the country, Iranian operatives were visiting known jihadist training camps, distributing cash and weapons, and making little effort to hide this activity. In particular, Iranian spies were seen visiting the jihadist colony at Gornja Maoča in northeastern Bosnia which, despite occasional police raids, has operated for years as a more or less open training camp for jihad-minded radicals. Gornja Maoča has long been the base of Nusret Imamović, the leading extremist cleric in the country, who since late 2013 has been in Syria with Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al-Qa’ida faction fighting the Assad regime.

Regular visits to Gornja Maoča by Iranian intelligence officers were too much for even Sarajevo to stomach, so Bosnia’s Ministry of Security took the unprecedented step of ordering two Iranian “diplomats,” specifically Hamzeh Dolab Ahmad and Jadidi Sohrab, ostensibly the second and the third secretaries in the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Sarajevo but known by local counterintelligence to actually be spies, to leave Bosnia by the end of April 2013, or they would be officially declared persona non grata and expelled. 

Then, in a telling revelation about who really calls the shots in Sarajevo, that deadline passed and the Iranians were still in Sarajevo, an almost unimaginable breach of diplomatic protocol. Nearly two weeks late, the Iranian “diplomats” finally left Bosnia, and for a time VEVAK and Pasdaran activities in the country adopted a somewhat lower profile, in a manner that pleased Western governments as well as the many Bosnians who do not like their country being used as a spy-terror safe haven by revolutionary Iran.

Yet now the Iranians are back to their old tricks. This week the Sarajevo daily Dnevni avaz reported, based on Bosnian intelligence sources, that Tehran’s spies have resumed their old operational tempo, and their nefarious activities have been rising fast since early September. Over the last six weeks, Bosnia’s Ministry of Security has noticed a significant increase in the activities of known Iranian intelligence officers in Bosnia. Outreach to local jihadists by VEVAK and Pasdaran operatives has been observed, and visits to Gornja Maoča are happening again. Although these activities are more subtle than what Hamzeh Dolab Ahmad and Jadidi Sohrab had been doing, namely driving up to the jihadist camp in their car with Iranian diplomatic tags, Bosnian officials are nevertheless deeply worried. As an anonymous Bosnian security official explained:

There have been a number of contacts with individuals from the Wahhabi community in Gornja Maoča. In recent months, associates of this [Iranian] service have been crossing the border frequently. Many of them use identification documents from Bosnia-Hercegovina, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Israel, which they received via HAMAS and the Palestinian Authority in Gaza.

Worse, many top Iranian intelligence officials have been visiting Bosnia in recent months, including Abolghasem Parhizkar, one of the most senior VEVAK officials, who has visited Bosnia twice in 2014 on a diplomatic passport. Pasdaran officers have also been showing up, customarily including a visit to Vienna along with their drop-in in Sarajevo, as the Bosnian security official explained: 

Nasrolah Pezhmafar and Mohamad Mahdi Fadakar Davrani have used their diplomatic passports to enter Bosnia, while Vahid Hozouri and Sorouh Jusefi have been using their official passports.  During entry, particular attention was paid to one suspect “diplomat,” who came to Sarajevo, having previously spent time in Thailand, India and Georgia, where [Iranian-backed] terrorist attacks had been carried out previously.

Of particular concern is the large number of Iranian intelligence fronts operating in Bosnia that provide cover for operations and funding of terrorists and radicals: NGOs, charities of various sorts, and schools. For the Pasdaran, its most important cut-outs in Bosnia are the “Ibn Sina” Research Institute and the Persian-Bosnian College, but there is a long list of Iranian-linked fronts in the country (my analysis of these and how they provide cover for VEVAK and Pasdaran is here) that play an important role in Tehran’s secret war in Europe.

Then there is the knotty question of just how many spies from Middle Eastern countries are actually in Bosnia. The Ministry of Security assesses that about one thousand secret operatives are present, counting those employed in various front organizations, with the lion’s share from Iran, but with significant representation from the secret services of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait too. (Western security agencies place the figure around 650, but this has more to do with counting methods, i.e. who is actually a spy, than disagreements about the extent of the threat.) For Bosnian counterspies, monitoring so many targets is a simply impossible task, particularly considering the country’s deep financial problems and limited budgets.

For years, Bosnian counterintelligence has been well aware of Iran’s nefarious activities in their country, but customarily there has been little political will to do much about this threat, not least because important SDA officials are on Tehran’s payroll, and have been for many years. Privately, Bosnian security officials express their exasperation to Western friends, but barring a major crackdown, which can only happen if NATO and the EU demand it in exchange for any progress on Bosnian membership in Atlantic and European institutions, nothing will change. Since Iran views Bosnia as a safe haven for its espionage and terrorist activities elsewhere, one which they have enjoyed for a generation, we ought to be asking what this current surge of VEVAK and Pasdaran activity in Southeastern Europe means for regional security. It can’t be anything good.

Defeating the Islamic State: A How-To Guide

Last night President Barack Obama addressed the nation, explaining his plan to degrade and defeat the Islamic State. I liked much of what I heard, with the “better late than never” caveat, but I long ago grew skeptical of Obama’s speeches, which often over-promise and under-deliver, so I will be suitably impressed if this plan is actually carried out. I’m not convinced that the suggested counterterrorism templates of Somalia and Yemen are ideal for employment in this case, but at this point any bias for presidential action against the murderous Islamic State is welcome.

We already have the nay-sayers, complaining about the lack of an “exit strategy,” as well as bellowing from George W. Bush-era strategists who, having failed to make their counterinsurgency dreams come true in Iraq the last time, are determined to harass President Obama until he makes the same mistakes. Fortunately, he will not, and the potshots of yesterday’s soi-disant war-makers can be ignored.

I recently explained what a successful strategy to defeat the Islamic State should look like, involving the aggressive application of U.S. and Allied airpower in combination with local proxies on the ground. This approach is attritional — there will be no “big wins” in this fight — and imperfect, but it is the only practical strategy at present. Putting large numbers of American “boots on the ground” in Iraq to defeat an uprising would be a fool’s errand now (it always was, but that’s another story). That said, the addition of superb American Special Operations Forces, the world’s most lethal covert killers,  to this strike package will degrade the Islamic State’s military capacity over time, meaning years not months, and will lead to its ultimate defeat in the Middle East. It remains to be seen if Obama will actually do this, but the path to victory is clear for those inside the Beltway who wish to find it.

I also advised Washington, DC, to get serious about the jihadist threat in other ways, such as dropping security-as-theater and dealing with real threats in a straightforward and adult manner. This, alas, seems unlikely to happen in this administration — though, to be fair, it didn’t happen under Obama’s predecessor either (indeed, the current occupant of the White House has continued, not created, most of this silliness). Institutionalized escapism has become a fully bipartisan American political trait, with baleful consequences for our national security and much beyond.

Nevertheless, it ought to be made clear that the Islamic State threat in Iraq and Syria is ultimately manageable as long as the United States is willing to employ persistent force in combination with partners. If we fail to do so, others — meaning above all Iran — are far less squeamish than we are in such affairs, and will annihilate Salafi jihadists in their region, along with lots of civilians, if we refuse battle. The Pasdaran, Iran’s feared Revolutionary Guards Corps, is not encumbered, as Western militaries are, by platoons of lawyers and restrictive Rules of Engagement. We may not like the consequences of Tehran taking the lead in this struggle, however.

The real threat presented by the Islamic State is to the West itself, thanks to the vast and unprecedented numbers of Westerners who have joined the jihad in Iraq and Syria. Even top-notch European security services are already overwhelmed by the size and scope of this threat, with hundreds of European jihadists returning home every month, fresh from battle on behalf of the Islamic State, and ready to cause mayhem and recruit others for the jihad.

What, then, is to be done? What does strategic victory over Salafi jihadists look like? I hinted here:

The military defeat of the Islamic State by Western airpower and commandos, aided by local proxies, will set the stage for the strategic defeat of their movement. What must follow is a version of what I term Special War, tailored for counterterrorism, combining offensive counterintelligence, denial and deception, and long-term manipulation of the jihadists leading to their collapse and self-immolation.

To vanquish the Salafi jihad in the West, where the Islamic State wishes to perpetrate acts of terror on a scale even Osama bin Laden never attempted, its infrastructure in Europe and beyond must be put out of business. This growing cadre of extremists among us in the West, what I term the Sixth Column, actually is comparatively easy to defeat, since their skills in counterintelligence and operational security — the vital tools of any successful terrorist group — are customarily lacking, indeed often laughably weak. Although they are paranoid about spies in their midst, which constitutes a critical weakness for them, Salafi jihadists (unlike, for instance, Iranian-trained Hizballah) are seldom adept at rooting them out effectively.

Taking a page from the Russians, who are masters of this dark art, this is where a counterterrorism strategy based on provocation is needed. It is not difficult to cause terrorists, particularly inexperienced ones longer on radical talk than effective action, to do self-defeating things, thereby discrediting their virulent message. It is not necessary to perpetrate “false flag” terrorism to defeat the terrorists — which, although highly successful in many cases, is something which no law-based democracy could countenance. Instead, through careful application of offensive counterintelligence coupled with denial and deception, in a patient and holistic manner, Western states together can undo the Salafi jihad movement in the West before it grows unmanageably dangerous.

This would be simply a 21st century version of the Second World War’s British Double-Cross System after which this blog is named: employing multidisciplinary counterintelligence, aggressively applied in a strategic manner, to gain control of the enemy’s intelligence apparatus and thereby blind him and render him vulnerable to mistakes, confusion, and self-deception.

Western security services actually have considerable experience with such messy matters more recently than the Second World War. The British managed a small-scale version of this in Northern Ireland, leading to the ultimate defeat of the IRA in any military sense by the early 1990s, thereby paving the way for long-term peace in that troubled province. In Germany today, the Neo-Nazi movement is so thoroughly swiss-cheesed with government agents, at the highest levels, as to be more or less an appendage of the domestic security service. America is no slouch in this shadowy department either. Hoover’s FBI in the 1960s and early 1970s did a commendable job with its Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) in disabling far-left and far-right groups in a comprehensive manner without killing anyone. (I know the mere mention of COINTELPRO brings nostalgics on the Left into a lather; I notice they object less when the identical offensive counterintelligence techniques, applied by the FBI, broke the back of the Ku Klux Klan.)

The issue is will more than capability. If we are not willing to apply non-lethal counterintelligence techniques against the Islamic State, which is vastly more dangerous than the IRA, the Weathermen, the Black Panthers, or the KKK, we may wish to consider giving up now. Applying offensive counterintelligence in a strategy based on penetration and provocation is a messy business, and there will be mistakes, but it is not based on killing, neither does it involve invading other people’s countries, much less occupying them.

Assassination is a legitimate technique against virulent terrorists, but it is a dangerous tool that must be applied carefully; it can be overused as well as misused, with bad consequences for any democracy. Moreover, provocation done right leads terrorists to kill each other, rather than innocent people. Every hour Salafi jihadists spend trying to detect moles in their ranks is an hour they are not building bombs, spreading hate, and learning to fly airliners. Offensive counterintelligence, strategically applied, is highly effective at growing lethal paranoia in the minds of the already pretty paranoid.

We need not reinvent the wheel here. The implosion of the Abu Nidal Organization (ANO) offers an ideal template. Back in the mid-1980s, the ANO was one of the world’s most feared terrorist organizations, responsible for murder and mayhem across Europe and the Middle East, including the deaths of several Americans. Abu Nidal had been thrown out of Arafat’s PLO for his violent madness, becoming the world’s arch-terrorist during the mid-Reagan years. (Providing the spark for Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon was one of his more consequential terrorist acts.) Then, suddenly, he disappeared from the radar and went Elvis.

What happened was Abu Nidal killed off his own organization. A long-term deception operation by several intelligence services (including American), working together, convinced the already half-mad Abu Nidal that his group was swarming with spies and traitors. Instead of finding these (mostly mythical) moles, Abu Nidal decided to basically kill everyone. Over a few months in 1987-88, he unleashed his fearsome security force against his own people, murdering about 600 ANO members, many of them tortured to death in a medieval fashion. Some 170 terrorists were murdered in a single terrible night. With half the group dead and the other half terrified and demoralized, Abu Nidal fled to Baghdad with the remnants of the ANO, under Saddam Hussein’s protection, where they remained until the Americans arrived in the spring of 2003. (U.S. intelligence very much wanted to find Abu Nidal, but it turned out he was dead, ostensibly after having shot himself….several times.)

The Islamic State represents a far more serious and persistent threat to the West than any Palestinian terrorists ever did, and they merit at least as tenacious and cunning counterterrorism techniques applied against them as were used against the ANO. There is considerable false morality at work if we are willing to use drones to kill thousands of terrorists — and along with them hundreds of innocents from “collateral damage” — not to mention occupying countries for years with awful humanitarian consequences, but we are unwilling to wage Special War, which is far less expensive in blood, treasure, and morality.

But will does not represent the only challenge. There are bureaucratic issues at play as well, as there always are in the real world of espionage, which day-to-day has a lot more to do with jockeying for institutional influence, budgetary cat-fights, and endless PowerPoint presentations than actual spying. In the first place, the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) is not conditioned to think in strategic terms; by its very nature it’s about tactics, not the big picture. Therefore it may be necessary to create a new organization — small, select, elite, and very secretive — to wage Special War against terrorists (and against troublesome states like Russia too: the counterintelligence methods employed are more or less identical against both state and non-state actors) that can think and act strategically, not just tactically.

Over a decade ago I briefed this concept in classified detail to IC and DOD seniors and was told it was “impossible” — they meant bureaucratically of course. When DC rice bowls win, so do the terrorists. In 1942, FDR created the shadowy Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA — over the strenuous objection of the Army, the Navy, and the FBI, who all (rightly) saw their secret rice bowls getting dented — with a pen-stroke, and there is no reason something similar cannot be done today by any president, if there exists the will to do so.

There is also the touchy matter of keeping secrets. Simply put, if we cannot keep Special War out of the newspapers, there is no point in doing it. Beyond the issue of leaks, which all White Houses of late have been prone to, the Snowden disaster raises troubling questions about the ability of the IC and DOD to protect its most cherished secrets. Until Washington, DC, can get serious about security clearances and merely defensive counterintelligence, it would be a mistake to embark on any shadowy offensive counterintelligence campaign against the Islamic State, which must be kept secret for decades to be effective.

Seriousness, then, is the real issue. If the West wants to win this war, it will. We cannot lose to a cabal of neo-medieval barbarians, we can only defeat ourselves. The Islamic State is murderous and fanatical, but not yet accomplished in international terrorism. It is imperative that we defeat them before they learn those deadly skills and apply them against our homelands, as they ardently wish to. Today, the thirteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the day that opened the new era of Western counterterrorism, it is high time, at last, to seriously start thinking strategically — not just tactically — about victory over Salafi jihadism and how to achieve it.